Someone has wisely said that great art is more about asking questions than it is about providing answers. Perhaps this is why in times of greatest uncertainty, we find such comfort in creativity.
I’m in one of those phases myself right now. The process is exciting and liberating—but so much is “up in the air,” that I find myself asking questions more hours of the day than I make statements.
While I’m excited and energized by this, it also gets exhausting.
Maybe you can relate.
Which is why I’m so glad that this past week, someone reminded me of a beautiful quote from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Apparently Rilke knew first-hand what it was like to go about his daily life with the companionship of uncertainty.
So much so, that he had the kindness (and forethought) to make a powerful and provocative statement about this way of life:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Does this statement hit you in the gut as hard as it does me?
This sentence especially struck me:
So often, I want to rush right past the questions and get down to the business of living the answers.
But as Rilke reminds us, we’re probably not ready for those answers yet. And as it is, likely they’ll come about gradually over time, sneaking up on us when we’re busy doing something else altogether.
This has been my experience so many times in the past, in all my roles as an artist, a professional and a human being.
Yet it’s the experience that’s so easy to forget.
When the bottom drops out of everything in your world, and you find yourself walking “between the worlds,” it’s natural to wish desperately for a path that’s clearly veering into one world or the other.
And yet, this time of uncertainty is where an artistic practice comes so much in handy.
Because every blank page, blank canvas or otherwise “blank” surface upon which we practice our creativity is just like our life that’s “in between.”
It’s full of questions and possibilities.
The first word of the next chapter, or the first stroke of the next image, has yet to be laid down.
If you’re like me, you want a plan in place for exactly what’s going to land on that blankness, before you even think about touching it.
But so often, you’re creativity just won’t cooperate.
The vision won’t show up until you start laying down the strokes.
This was very much my experience, not only with Rilke’s quote, but with laying a piece of that quote down onto a page in my art journal.
I knew I wanted to represent that one powerful statement, “Live the questions now.” But I had no idea how it should look—other than that the colors should be rich, even effervescent.
It wasn’t until I had laid down several layers of watercolors that I got the idea to apply a layer of iridescent tinting medium (a substance usually mixed with acrylic paints, to add a pearlescent sheen).
The tinting medium added a fantastic pearly veneer over the entire image.
This not only transformed the colors from flat to dimensional, but also provided a sense of “distance” that was critical for the final india ink lettering to actually stand out from the busy watercolor doodling I’d let myself create in the background.
As I created this piece, I had no idea how it would turn out. I had to live the question, in the now, as I placed stroke upon stroke of color, then of iridescent medium.
The question was uncomfortable. Several times I was convinced I was making a big gigantic mess with the watercolors.
And yet, when I had the flash of inspiration to add the medium, at the last minute, all of that uncertainty paid off.
In order to get to the answer, I had to live the questions.
So perhaps we could say that in those most uncertain moments, when we’re most tempted to wish desperately for answers, we can comfort ourselves by reminding ourselves that we’re on our way to finding them.
Living the questions is a necessary first step toward living the answers.
It’s not a question of “if” those answers will come.
It’s simply a question of when.
What about you? How do you handle times of uncertainty?
What role does your artistic practice play in shaping the answers?