How Do You Picture Work?

Walking into the central gallery at the Detroit Institute of Art, you are struck by the majesty and magnitude of Diego Rivera’s largest mural, “Detroit Industry.” It envelops you as it spans floor to ceiling and wall to wall across this expansive room.

The mural was intended as an homage to the worker and industry. Rivera spent weeks at one of Ford’s plants, sketching those who toiled away at the height of the Depression. As you investigate the hundreds of figures and images you are drawn to the men in motion and the myriad of work on display.

When it was revealed, most felt the workers were presented as dehumanized cogs in a machine – except the workers themselves.  They felt respected and even glorified.

Looking up, there are larger portraits representing the diversity of people who work. All are accorded equal size and stature. To your left, you will see powerful hands extracting resources from the land, the raw materials that get shaped into goods – like cars.

Directly in front of you, you will see a triptych that may seem at odds with the rest of this piece. On the left and right are images of fruits and vegetables. In the centerpiece is a fetus resting peacefully in a womb.

Rivera’s original plan was to have a painting of trucks transporting the fruits and vegetables in this center place. But while painting the mural, his wife and fellow acclaimed artist, Frida Kahlo, suffered a miscarriage. Rivera changed his plan and put this embodiment of life’s fragility in the middle instead.

I don’t know the fullness of his thinking behind this image or any other in this amazing work of art.  But upon reflection, this was my takeaway:

  • While others may not understand or appreciate your work, you alone must find some value and respect from it.
  • Ideally, your work creates something that someone else will find some real use for, and —
  • Work means little next to life.

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