Molly Fisk: Jealousy Is Your Friend

8642015356_12bfbc1fca_zTom Roberts. “Jealousy,” 1889. Oil on canvas and hardboard. (Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales)

I haven’t always been a poet. For a long time I didn’t know what to be, and worked in clothing stores, engineering/architecture joint ventures, and swank French restaurants. I ran a knitting business for seven years, making Scandinavian-style sweaters with pterodactyls on them instead of reindeer. I went to business school at 30 and passed as a banker — a Fortune 1000 lender in Chicago, no less — for three years before I realized I was only pretending I could stand it.

During this time my mother sat happily at the kitchen table after her nursing shift ended, drawing flowers in vases or the faces of people she knew from church: exquisite line drawings that captured delicate petals and subtleties of expression. My Aunt Mary had painted most of her life, and was getting good gallery shows. Her daughter Liz taught at an art school, her son Michael sculpted his own work as well as innovative serving utensils for a tableware company, and my youngest cousin, Miranda, did life-like paintings of people’s dogs and houses for a living.

I don’t know how you interpret jealousy in your life, but for years I saw it as a moral failing: something to be ashamed of and eradicate. Then a poet-friend torqued my thinking. “Jealousy is one of the best ways to find out what you want to do next! It points you in new directions.” The next day I visited my sister, the organizational development consultant, and there on her wall was the gorgeous print of dolphins she made in college.

“I want to make art!!” I growled to myself on the drive home. “Writing is boring! My eyes are falling asleep. I want to play with color too! Everyone else in this dang family can do it, why not me?” This isn’t strictly true, since I have one brother whose artistry is mainly, like our dad, in his incredibly good taste in clothes, and also a brother and cousin who both write but don’t paint. But you get the idea.

Jealousy isn’t only an indicator of what to try next, it’s a wonderful fuel for action. Four years later, I’m spending Monday afternoons with people who smell deliciously of turpentine. Everyone’s painting something different. I was originally fixated on water in mason jars, because it’s hard to capture. Then I moved on to barns, and now boats. In time-honored artistic tradition, I’m copying the work of other people and trying to figure out how they do it. Where does light hit glass? How does a boat’s shape change when it’s reflected in rippling water?

My first efforts were decidedly wonky, but now I’m getting the hang of it. A few friends have actually BOUGHT some of my work. I’m happy to let them, despite feeling like a total fraud. It’s very fun to make something and then get paid for it a few days later — an experience poets do not generally have — but I would never call myself a painter.

I’m still a poet, but one who — by the unexpected grace of envy — is learning to paint.

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  • Molly Fisk July 10, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks, Sage, I didn’t see that you’d found the image already! And yes, isn’t it great to grow up and be able to look at all the admonishments we got as kids with a different eye? Procrastination is another one, for me. It can definitely be a problem, but I’m so much smarter and more alert when I get closer to a deadline, why not use those qualities to improve whatever it is I’m doing? 😉

  • Molly Fisk July 10, 2016 at 10:14 am

    The painting is “Jealousy” Tom Roberts, 1889

  • Ren Powell July 10, 2016 at 8:31 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I heard a podcast a couple months ago (Happiness with Gretchen what’s-her-name) and she talked about using envy as a kind of compass. Right afterward I had a horrible case of envy regarding a colleague who was following through on things I have sort of ruled out for reasons – I mean excuses that I can no longer accept.

    Still not sure I am brave enough to follow through, but at least I am honest with myself now.

  • Sage July 10, 2016 at 7:20 am

    I like the essay as well! Often our so-called negative feelings can lead to self-betterment when looked at from a new perspective.

    The painting is called Jealousy, by Australian artist Tom Roberts. (Not off the top of my head, I found it via reverse image search: )

  • Molly Fisk July 9, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    Hi, Leslie — I don’t know who the painter is either, but will find out from the editors and make sure that next time it’s listed clearly. Might well be Cassatt but I don’t know my painters well enough to say. Glad you liked the essay! All best.

  • Leslie Hilburn Fabian July 9, 2016 at 10:45 am

    First-I looked and looked for credit for the painting and saw only the name of the photographer of the painting. How could you leave out the name of the ARTIST? It looks like Mary Cassatt, but I’m not sure. Please, when you use someone’s artwork, identify the artist!
    Secondly-this is a great little essay about being true to yourself. I really enjoyed it and think it will encourage others to consider how to assuage that jealousy and turn it into creative productivity. Thanks