Maya’s Pin: How A Mad-Eyed Crow Helped an Artist Fend Off Envy from Her Professors and Keep Her Dream Factory Open
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
A Controversial Take on Artists and Envy
I want to talk to you today about artists and envy.
But not discuss it in the way you think.
If you google “artists and envy” right now you will get eighty-six million, six hundred thousand, and six hits.
That means countless pages of articles on why you as an artist can and should stop envying other artists.
But none, zero, zilch, nada hits about the opposite problem.
What problem is that?
The problem you may have if others, like say… your art professors… envy YOU.
Envy cloaks itself in odd forms that are hard to recognize and is even not intentional.
And it happens to beginning and advanced artists alike.
Sometimes we are envied more for our energetic spirits, our plethora of ideas, and our optimism rather than our writing or painting in class environments.
People who are exhausted and burnt out often unconsciously envy artists like you; artists who (no matter what your age) still shine with hope.
Some People Envy the Hope and Freedom You Exude as an Artist
Hope is a coveted possession.
A lot of “important people” in art land secretly have very little of it in their own cupboards.
We may not even allow ourselves to think, let alone hypothesize out loud that envy may be afoot when someone attacks or projects their issues onto us and our art.
Because when we say to ourselves, ‘Hmm, I wonder if this “critique” is not about the goodness of my art?’
And we dare to go further and ponder, ‘Could this instead be about issues that reside within the person critiquing my art?’
Things get crazy.
We immediately hear these imaginary sirens and see red and blue police lights going off inside our heads.
Whoa, hold up. What have we done?
We worry we may be getting all uppity and full of ourselves.
Which is ridiculous.
So if you have ever dared to even think to yourself some of the absurdity thrown your way in art school or elsewhere, may have had to do with envy, this
Bud, I mean, this article is for you.
A Short Story About Artists and Envy
Recently, a seventy-year-old critically acclaimed painter I’ll refer to here as Maya, began working with me to finish her first book; it’s a teaching memoir about being a painter.
The story that follows, surfaced after I asked Maya to journal on the importance of a few of her soul treasures. (I define soul treasures as non-monetarily valuable objects we have kept around our house or studio for decades but are not sure why).
This story emerged after she journaled on a mad-eyed crow pin she kept in her studio and couldn’t throw out.
Now you’re just going to need three more bits of background to understand Maya’s story:
- It was the late 1960s
- Maya was then just nineteen.
- And she was ninety-eight percent sure she was going to drop out of art school.
Even at nineteen, it was obvious Maya was gifted.
Her paintings, like yours, were already wildly original and impactful.
But Art School Can Be a Writhing Snake Pit of Envy
Yet in the annoyingly sexist climate of art school at that time Maya was told in supposed “professional critiques” by professors that her work was: “decorative,” “arbitrary,” “too personal,” “not personal enough,” “childish,” “overly sexual(?)” and “weird.”
Three out of her four art professors seemed to delight in giving her paintings unprofessional scathing, public “critiques.”
Can you relate?
If this sounds familiar you gotta read Preston Cram’s uplifting piece: “Why Art School Critiques Caused You to Stop Making Art – and How to Reclaim Your Creative Passion.”
To learn more about the difference between a constructive critique and a personal attack read The Charmed Studio’s: How Do I Cope With a Harsh Critique of My Art? Why People Say Dumb Things and How To Bounce Back.
And for more on how to flourish with artwork others consider weird, you might like my podcast, Orhan Pamuk: Why Artists Need To Stay Weird and What To Do Today To Start Making The Best Work of Your Life.
But back to our story.
Maya’s large canvases had personal meaning to her because they stemmed from nighttime dreams and visions.
So, logically, the “critiques” impacted her personally.
At the time Maya hadn’t yet developed a thick skin.
(I’m 57 and I still haven’t, so I can’t blame her.)
She’d really had all she could tolerate.
But then, on the last day of her first year of art school, one of her four professors (“the not-a-jerk one”) gestured to Maya from an empty hallway.
“Want some advice from an old man, Maya?” he asked. She nodded yes.
“Ok then, let’s talk about envy,” he said.
Is Your Art Work The Problem? Or Is It Just Envy?
“Envy is a subtle but insidious force, and it occurs in every institution, right?
But if you want to see envy at its wickedest, look around an art school.”
The octogenarian went on. But now in a hushed voice.
“And you want to know the most destructive envy in art school?
The most deadly envy here is when a professor envies a student and acts it out childishly in public critiques.”
His lovely, crinkled face broke into a grin.
“Don’t quit now Maya. Art school will end, and your life will open up.”
Her professor then clasped Maya’s young, paint-stained, nail-bitten hands in his old, gnarled paws, and placed something inside her palms. He then turned and retreated quietly away down the hall.
Maya gingerly opened her hands.
The ugliest sterling silver crow pin with one mad, googly eye peered out and kind of winked at her.
She managed to finish art school.
And despite being an ardent minimalist, Maya kept the crazed crow close to her for the next fifty years.
How Strange Objects Can Come to The Rescue of Artists Who Are Envied
I’m sure as an artist you have an idea why she didn’t toss it.
Maya told me, “I finally realized why after fifty years of athletic clutter-clearing, I’ve never been able to “put that deranged bird pin with its mad abalone eye into a GoodWill bag.”
Because that pin still physically holds the energy of two huge whens.
(I define a when as a pivotal moment in an artist’s life.)
The First When: The Importance of an Ally’s Estimation of Your Art
First, the crow pin holds the when of a time someone, besides Maya herself, believed in her dreams and believed in them at the very moment she was going to shut her dream factory down.
It’s great when someone gets our work and lets us know.
But over the years I have come to see it’s even more important that we love it.
Because if we don’t love our work and its evolution we get overly needy and reliant on the approval of others.
Which is what Maya’s fairy godfather of a professor may have also been pointing to.
This brings us to the second When.
The Second When: The Importance of Your Own Estimation of Your Art
Second, and more importantly, the pin marked the exact minute when Maya decided her own estimation of the merit of her work was more important than the estimation of others; whether those others praised or trashed it.
I think that’s huge.
And I wish that realization to gently settle upon anyone that is reading this today.
May we all get it that our own enjoyment and our own exploration and our own opinion of our work could be our North Star.
As the savvy, self-reliant, Georgia O’Keeffe said:
“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” — Georgia O’Keefe
May we accept and allow our art or writing practice to shift, seemingly regress, and ultimately evolve.
Because only then will we grant ourselves the freedom to experiment and revel in being the happy, crazed, mad scientists we are.
Only then are dream factories up and running with ease.
Let’s end with a final observation from Maya.
“My bond with myself got stronger the second that wily crow hopped into my hand,” said Maya. “And now, at seventy, I see how I can finally let the bird go. It’s finally time to pass the pin on to some young student of mine who wants to give up and needs a mad-eyed bird for company.”
Does that make sense to you?
It does to me.
I hope you feel that mad-eyed crow pin being placed in your own precious palms today.
Or if you don’t need it, give that metaphorical crow to some younger (or older soul) who does.
But before I end this I also want to say…it’s not just art professors whose envy impacts us.
Some Curators and Art Organization Professionals Envy Artists Too
Here’s a powerful thought for the road from choreographer and author Andrew Simonet:
Your Turn. Got Something to Say About Artist and Envy?
Can you remember who believed in you as a young artist when you doubted yourself?
Do you have an object that represents someone’s love for you or belief in your work?
What was art school like for you?
What was good about it? Or what was terrible about it?
Let me know in the comments below.
You may also like these other Charmed Studio Posts:
How to Give Your Creative Dream Project Wings
Where Was Ray Bradbury’s Office? And How Junk Fosters Genius
Black Artists Matter: 5 Easy Ways To Support Artists of Color
How To Get an Artist’s Residency? Don’t Apply For One, Do This Instead
O’Keeffe’s Love Affair With Herbs: Recipes and Gardening Tips from the Artist’s Magical Kitchen Garden
How To Write a Kick-Butt Opening Paragraph: With this Easy Paragraph Sandwich Template
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Michael Shook says
“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” — Georgia O’Keefe
One of the best quotes I’ve read for forging a good life, and for the act of making.
You are so kind to let me know Michael that you like that quote too. I don’t think I would have had a clue as to what it meant in my twenties, would you have? There are big benefits to aging.
Linda Blondheim says
I wrote this today on my Group, Art and Stories. I listened to your podcast later.
I wonder if art school students realize that their time at the university is the easiest and most relaxed time they will have as an artist? Looking back, it surely was for me. In those days having a BFA and then MFA was a big deal. We were all full of ourselves. We wore black and hung around in bars and cafe’s, pretending we were the new generation of “cool” artists. We considered ourselves to be existentialists, having no idea what that meant. We stayed up all night in the studios at school with coolers of beer, painting atrocious huge paintings. We pulled lots of pranks and lived in terror of our professors’ critiques.
In those days, art school was a game of tearing students apart with vicious critiques by professors. They took no prisoners. Lots of students dropped out due to the abuse. I was always pretty tough, so I hung in and thrived.
I’ve always gone my own way as an artist, caring little about what others are painting or what is popular. I think that is why I have survived all these years. That, and a lot of hard work. For a long time after art school I felt as if I had PTSD from the experience. With some maturity, I realize that it made me strong enough to work hard and accept my own voice as a painter.
Country painters love their job…….
Holy Guacamole Linda! That is an interesting coincidence. Thanks for sharing that, I was laughing at the existentialist part, I still am pretending I know what that damn word means. It’s good to hear a different perspective on art school; it seems that for you, despite the PTSD it perhaps induced; art school critiques toughened you and helped you accept your own voice as a painter. Speaking of PTSD…In my podcast, I mentioned the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. In one of the final chapters Achor writes that so many people have heard of PTSD but not PTSG. PTSG is post traumatic stress GROWTH. And it is a super statistically validated scientific theory that outlines the specific types of positive transformation that can follow big trauma. It consists of five things:
1. Greater Appreciation of life.
2. Improved relationships with others.
3. New possibilities in life, and often a longer life.
4. Increased Personal strength
5. Big Spiritual Openings or Awakenings.
So that is something I wish I had said on the podcast and didn’t.
If we had PTSD we also probably had PTSG! A silver lining.
Do you think you had PTSG after art school?
Let me know.
Thank you for this insightful and beautiful post. Envy has been a longtime painful part of my life. I think of myself as a capable artist, but I know the world is full of art much better than mine and artists more capable than I am. That’s my point of view. And yet, people have often stepped back away from me with a sneer, saying something like, “Oh, you’re the talented one.” Then I feel like a silly little kid again, thinking, “I just want to be friends.”
One time, I went back to visit my college and bumped into one of my professors. I showed him some pics of my recent work and he said, “You could do anything.” That is the pin in my pocket that I carry with me and pull out when I get harsh criticism, often for my works in realism. After reading your post, I realize the worst criticism I get is from other artists. Your helpful insights lead to a better understanding.
I still have trouble making/keeping friends as an adult. It’s too bad, but it does give me more time to paint. 🙂 Several years ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and talked to another artist I like about starting a private little group of serious artists for mutual support. The group has been a sanity-saver, but it started to wane during covid. Recently, I sent out an email encouraging the group to get going again and it has restarted. Interestingly, we all excel the most in different mediums. Maybe that’s not a coincidence? Maybe it helps reduce the artistic envy?
Thanks so much for sharing the story of the metaphorical pin from your college professor.Isn’t it great when people in positions of influence lift us up instead of stomping us down? I LOVE the idea of you reforming the “Magnificent Seven” 🙂 or however many there are in your art group. And I really thought your observation about the fact that the group might have worked well because it contained artists of different artistic disciplines, was thought-provoking! I know in my own life that it’s been great having my close-close friends and partners who are creatives BUT who have different zones of genius than me. As Ben Franklin said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Cheers to you and your beautiful work! Keep listening to that professor!
The art world can be cruel at times. I like to use my imaginary armor to protect me when needed. Sometimes you need to regroup your creative thoughts and visions and get back on the creating trail. I never thought of it as envy but more someone voicing degrading words for whatever reason they dreamed up. I had my share of this and it can get to you. But you need to overcome.
I love that you have imaginary armor, great idea. My friend has an imaginary group of Celtic warriors he surrounds himself with when he feels outgunned. He is Irish and it really works for him to call on ancestors and lineage. Maybe we all can try the warrior plan. It is often our own internal voices that finish the job a harsh critic only begins. So I agree, calling on a different part of ourselves, the part that fights for us, not against us, is crucial. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.
sylvia Lippmann says
“May we all get it that our own enjoyment and our own exploration and our own opinion of our work, be our North Star.”
This totally resonates with me, Thea. I’ve recently realized that as long as I’m immersed in my work and feel like I’m learning and exploring, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. Or if someone makes a comment that gives me pause, I’m able to shake it off more quickly. Thanks for your essay.
Thanks, Sylvia for taking the time to read this and for commenting. I really appreciate your opinion. And yes immersion is bliss isn’t it? It’s a gift we need to give ourselves more often perhaps. I read this quote by writer John Mason Brown you may like:
“What happiness is, no person can say for another. But no one, I am convinced, can be happy who lives only for himself. The joy of living comes from immersion in something that we know to be bigger, better, more enduring and worthier than we are.” And for me art that connects me up to spirit is that bigger, better thing.
Lola Jovan says
I never went to art school. I was a corporate banker who fell into (upon, under, around) being an artist. The art community was often cruel.
But what I realized ( my wild eyed crow?) is that my bold unknowingness made my work peculiar and fresh. No one ever told me what NOT to do, so I tried everything. I still do, but with a much thicker skin. 😁😁😁😁
Lola! I had no idea you were a corporate banker! That is amazing. Thanks so much for your insightful comment. I loved hearing of your “bold unknowingness”.Great word choice. I totally can see how people who aren’t in touch with their creativity would be threatened by your maverick, fresh, spirit and beautiful art. I talked in the podcast about others being unaware of their envy of the hope and constantly renewing energy and ideas fountains some artists exude. You are such a fountain, you always inspire me. So glad you have a much thicker skin now. Are you giving out thicker skin lessons? If so, sign me up. Love Thea
One question I forgot to ask you guys if you encountered sexism (or racism or ageism) in art school, high school, or college? I know I did, and it inhibited me from making art for 20 years. How about you? I’d love to know.