In praise of a beautiful mind: artist Ray Arnatt remembered

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 4, 2016

“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….” —Jacek Malec, former Director, Triangle Gallery/MOCA

Over the years that I’ve been writing these columns, one principle above all others has guided my selection of topics: Beauty.

I’ve found inspiration for this pursuit in the music of Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World,” theme song for these columns; and in the words of the Russian writer Dostoevsky, “The world will be saved by beauty,” and of Mother Teresa, “Let’s do something beautiful for God.”

And of course, since what we do is directly related to what we think, I dare not overlook one of my favourite verses from the Bible, the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

In that spirit, then, I’ve written columns about beautiful words and sayings; beautiful starry skies, clouds, landscapes and gardens; beautiful art and photography; and beautiful moments in the human journey.

But just this past weekend I was reminded of one area of beauty I had not written about for over 14 years: beautiful minds.

Back then I reflected on Ron Howard’s 2001 Academy Award-winning motion picture, A Beautiful Mind, the story of Nobel Laureate John Nash, played by Russell Crowe.

But there have been several people of truly beautiful minds within my own experience of life that may never be recognized with Academy Awards and Nobel Prizes. One of them is Ray Arnatt, 1934-2004.

Ray was an artist and philosopher who lived with his family just northeast of Cochrane. Both as head of sculpture at the University of Calgary, and as a totally approachable human being, he was an inspiring figure who impacted young and old alike with his passionate engagement of life.

Indeed, Ray regularly nurtured me in what one of his own mentors, Joseph Campbell, once called “the rapture of being alive.” His death from ALS in the summer of 2004 was a great loss to me and to many.

In my column’s July 7, 2004 tribute to Ray, I quoted Jacek Malec, then Director/Chief Curator, Triangle Gallery/MOCA, Calgary:

“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 who gather together each month at Cochrane IDEAS Society to discuss a wide range of intriguing topics. 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 “thinking well, speaking well,” mythology, or binaries.

His fascination with “binarism” in art and reality (the interrelationship of seeming opposites), the topic of one of his presentations, had already brought him global recognition.

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

But even more importantly, as I see it, was his respectful engagement of young people. This became especially apparent to me at an art exhibit of his work at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Arts Museum.

A youthful admirer of his art approached Ray to ask about one of the works. He took the boy of about 12 or 13 to a nearby table and, over soft drinks, entered into what was obviously a heartfelt two-way conversation. For at least 20 minutes, with the room filled with important-looking adults, nothing was more important in the entire world to him than that student. In that exchange he modelled for me the best of what it means to be a mentor/motivator of young minds.

These are just a few of the reasons I treasure Ray for his beautiful mind.

How about you, our coffee companions? Do you have your own nominations for beautiful minds throughout history that have very much shaped your own experience of life?

If so, drop me a note, mentioning the name, approximately when they lived – for this purpose, let’s restrict nominations to those who are no longer living – and providing a short statement on why that person’s beautiful mind has so influenced you.

Thanks, readers. And thank you, Ray, for sharing your beautiful mind with us.

PS In the spirit of sharing Ray’s philosophies and art, his sons, Thomas and Lucas, are producing a website dedicated to Ray’s life at


© 2016 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page