The big picture

5 01 2020

Another lifetime ago, I lived in London and most weeks I visited art galleries. Art was an important part of my emotional landscape, and I viewed my gallery visits as exciting adventures. I loved looking at tremendous works that had started as ideas, and through an impeccable commitment to a vision had grown into masterpieces. These great works were seemingly complete, but they still compelled me with their mystery.

One day I had an insight into the long and sometimes tedious process of working on a vast painting. An artist I met had been commissioned to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which itself had been copied several times, and had set up his studio in his North London flat. Each time I visited, he would talk me through his progress, which to my untutored eyes looked like nothing much. I wondered how he stood it, working on the same thing day after day: to me, it seemed about as rewarding as factory assembly work. Often painting by candlelight with the curtains drawn, the artist admitted it was a long labour of love. His whole world had become concentrated to the singularly devotional act of putting paint onto canvas.

I saw the painting near the finish, and I was stunned by its radiance, its glowing power, and the artist’s faithful commitment to the work. In those dark hours, he had wanted to walk away so many times, metaphorically hand back the commission so that he would not have to see it through, but something, a deeper determination, and dry humour kept him going. He remarked that as he was leaving the painting one evening, he swore that Jesus winked at him.

The start of the New Year is a good time to think about the next steps in the bigger picture. Now that my nourishing landscape takes the shape of Devon hills rather than the National Gallery or Royal Academy, I’m drawing inspiration and strength from my reading, most particularly Fred Kofman’s work: Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, a work I approached with the same keyed-up excitement I remember from studying philosophy of art.

Kofman’s work is both an invitation and a guide, and it is personal, insightful and tough. You can’t read it and not be changed on some level, which I know is a strong claim to make. Kofman puts it this way:

You know that there is more to work than making money. You know that it is possible to experience great joy as you engage in meaningful work of which you are proud; soulful work that confronts you with challenges and develops your skills; work that is aligned with your mission in life. This is work you enjoy doing for its own sake, work that provides you with significant material and spiritual rewards.

While you do this work, you feel fully absorbed. Time seems to stop and you enter into an extraordinary reality. Difficulties become creative challenges. You feel in control – not because you can guarantee the result, but because you trust yourself and know that you can respond skilfully. This is an ecstatic world that “stands outside” everyday dullness, a world that captures you so thoroughly you forget yourself. There’s a sense of flow, an experience of hard work performed with ease. Life seems to be living itself effortlessly, and everything that needs to get done gets done.

An Invitation to Conscious Business. Fred Kofman 2006.

As someone who hasn’t been able to properly get back to work yet because my desk is such a mess, there is so much in this short extract which fills my heart with hope, so much practical wisdom that inspires me to work with impeccable attention, so much insight that reminds me of the world beyond daily doing and dealing with ordinary demands. I see that taking one small step at a time, dipping my brush into new colours, but always stepping back to take in what is already present in the bigger picture is the way ahead.


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