My friend the photographer went for a portfolio review and came back crushed.

A portfolio review is when an artist submits work to experts who give feedback.   Her work is unique.  It sits at the intersection of art and social justice–the kind of photos people see and can’t look away from.  It’s intense, transformative.  It makes me want to be a better human being.

People take action.  They reach out.  They help.  They ask for help.  That’s art.  It’s also something more.  It’s art as community building–in a time where many of us don’t know our own neighbors, we’re starving for community.

Through her work, my friend breaks down walls politicians and social institutions spent entire careers building.

People say, “I want to help that family,” “Let me make a couple calls,” and “Let’s right this wrong!”  That’s power.  Sadly, people feel threatened by power, especially the quiet kind that sneaks up and changes lives.

She said her review went badly.

I told her I’d have reviewed her work for free.  I like to think I’m an expert photographer.  I have an iPhone and a killer Instagram account, so I feel I’m a good judge of such things.  She declined.

“Not everyone understands the mission of a great artist by the way,” I said.  I, personally, had to apologize to Henri Matisse, one of the greatest artists in history.  I’d laughed at his exhibit.  I was ignorant.  It’s easy to say, “My bad!” to dead artists.  They don’t make you feel stupid.  My friend will be alive when they apologize to her.

One reviewer put her photos in The Pile.

In the art world, “The Pile” is a very bad thing.  “The Pile” is for the stuff reviewers hate.  Truth be told, every artist thinks they’re braced and ready for criticism.   Seasoned writers warned me  “Be ready for the one-star review.”  Artists and writers know people will ignore their work, give cool feedback, or miss the point entirely.

But to see your work flipped and put in The Pile while you’re standing there and hear, “This is bad!”  The mind may be ready, but the heart never is.

The worst time is that split second between handing something over and waiting for feedback.  “Will they like it?”

I remember the feedback when I gave my first draft of Don’t Sniff the Glue to a few readers.  “You pulled the punches.”  “Write it again.”  “You’re being too clever.”  “If you need a priest, get a priest.  Don’t burden your reader.”

It was tough, but the criticism came out of love.  I rewrote.  I fixed.  I learned.  I became a better writer.  My book smiled.

Criticism is a tough thing.  It can go two ways.  Criticism given with love humbles the critic and makes the recipient a better person.  It’s the secret ingredient to growth.

Criticism given from a place of ego cuts a growing tree down to its roots.  It diminishes the artist so the critic feels more important.  Criticism given from ego is worth very little.  Put it in The Pile.

One bad word from the Ego Critic wipes out ten or twenty compliments, but thoughts from a place of love never seem like criticism.  They build people up, making them want to reach for the stars.

It’s as important to recognize the source and intent of criticism as it is to be open to receiving and growing from it.

If you meet the Ego Critic, say “Thank you.”  Move on.  When you find a person who tells the truth from a place of love, never let that person go.  Cherish that person.  People like this are rare–they are gold.

It takes a giant leap of faith to release something to the world, yet only a moment or a single word from a thoughtless person to blow out the candle and extinguish the fire.

It’s challenging to receive criticism but often criticism is just the thing to make a strong person stronger.

“We have a pilot light within each of us,” my friend says.

The difference between a candle and a pilot light is this–a candle is easy to blow out, but the pilot light is protected–much harder to extinguish.

So, the lesson is this–our hearts may be porcelain, but the spirit is steel, tempered with each experience we have, each thing we share with the world.

Never let that die out because one person poops on your pile.


Cartoon Credit:  This cow is from the famously talented Sarah Steenland.  She’s sailing the world boatschooling her kids–here’s a Halloween Project for you.  Note: This cow–from a totally unrelated conversation–volunteered to represent the ego critic pooping on The Pile.  Thanks, Cow.