Rather than produce a single object or event, we can greatly expand our possibilities through multiple variations on a shared theme.


Creative inquiry is generally driven by curiosity and inspired by one or more principal questions. A traditional researcher carefully hones each question posed, while a visual artist may more intuitively ask “what if” and then begin experimenting. In both cases, the rich possibilities of thought-provoking questions unfold over time. It may take months or even years of work before we truly understand their implications.

And yet–we (and our students) often quickly move on to new questions. Just when we are beginning to comprehend the complexity of a current question or the possibilities of an idea, we start over.

When creating multiple variations on our current question, we can dig more deeply, develop alternatives, and then compare the results. Let’s first consider some examples from the arts. Writers often create collections of short stories to analyze an event or location from multiple perspectives. Surely one of the most memorable collections is Robert Olen Butler’s Severance. From Medusa to Marie-Antoinette, the very short stories present the last thoughts of those who have been decapitated. The result is a surprisingly effective commentary on the preciousness of life.

Here’s another example. Based on real-life experiences, the spoken word stories on The Moth Radio Hour combine tragedy, wisdom, and humor based on various themes. The amazing range of type styles from Arial to Verdana is another example. And, of course, evolution is perhaps the greatest master of variations, producing many frightening forms of disease as well as a glorious range of tulips, apples, frogs, and so on.


Start with something familiar, such as a basic cookie recipe, a familiar song, or one of your patterns of behavior, such as your route to work. Modify it (allowing, of course, for getting lost if you are experimenting with an unfamiliar route!) In each case, what characteristics must you retain? What alternatives can occur? What do you discover? Just how far can you push your new creation while exploring the same theme?

Professor Emerita Mary Stewart taught in various colleges and universities for almost forty years.  Her work has been shown in over 95 exhibitions nationally and internationally. She received a Southeastern College Art Association Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010, the Foundations in Art: Theory and Education Master Educator award in 2009, and the National Council of Arts Administrators Award of Distinction in 2008. She is also the author of Launching the Imagination: A Comprehensive Guide to Basic Design, a best-selling design textbook. Her most recent book, Creative Inquiry: From Ideation to Implementation was published by SUNY Press in November 2021.

%d bloggers like this: