In memory of Ray Arnatt, Renaissance mind

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 7, 2004


Sculptor, philosopher and Cochrane-area resident Ray Arnatt, bedridden in this recent photo. He redefined ALS to stand for "Awareness, through Love and Simplicity."

Several years ago I had just entered one of Cochrane's coffee houses when a slender man somewhat older than I invited me to join him at his table. Thus began a friendship with Ray Arnatt, an artist and philosopher who has touched me deeply, nurturing me in what one of his own mentors, Joseph Campbell, once called "the rapture of being alive."

Ray died July 3rd of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was 69.

Born and educated in the United Kingdom, Ray taught sculpture in England and Canada, most recently as professor of sculpture at the University of Calgary.

His fascination with "binarism" in art and reality (the interrelationship of seeming opposites) brought him global recognition. In 2003, Calgary's Triangle Gallery of Visual Arts mounted an exhibition of his work, Ray Arnatt: Perfecting the View – A Retrospective.

Following Ray's death, I spoke with Jacek Malec, Triangle Gallery's director. He said:

"Ray Arnatt will be remembered as one of the most prolific visual artists of this country, a brilliant Renaissance mind well versed in quantum physics, theoretical mathematics, philosophy and literature, in addition to his major voice in contemporary Canadian visual culture."

These qualities became evident to many of us in Cochrane who gather together one evening each month to discuss a wide range of intriguing ideas. By his insights and example, Ray never ceased to inspire us, whether he was responding to the thoughts of others, or setting forth his own views on binaries, mythology, or "thinking well, speaking well."

Whatever the topic, he had the knack for taking the most complex concepts and explaining them so simply that even I could understand them.

How disappointing it was, then, when in March he apologized for having to absent himself from our Ideas gatherings and coffee chats. He was terribly fatigued, he explained, and his muscles and joints didn't seem to be working right.

Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with ALS.

ALS is a degenerative motor neuron disease whose cause and cure are not well understood. While the brain remains sharp, the body deteriorates.

In Ray's case, the disease progressed far more rapidly than usual. By May he was already barely able to move, and by late June he was having increasing difficulty breathing and speaking.

But to the end, he never lost his zest for life – or his zeal for positive thinking. In fact, he redefined ALS to stand for "Awareness, through Love and Simplicity."

When on two occasions I visited him at his home, he reflected on Mitch Albom's best-selling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, the story of Prof. Morrie Schwartz's battle with ALS.

In tribute to Ray, I'd like to quote from the last words Morrie said to Mitch – words in the spirit of Ray's redefinition of ALS:

"As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."

Ray lives on also in his art. Some of his final work will be part of the group exhibition Migrations in the Third Dimension, to be presented on the Greek island of Tinos this October in conjunction with the 2004 Cultural Olympiad.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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