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Meet Trailblazer Robin Elise Maaya

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robin Elise Maaya.

Robin Elise, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
From a very young age, I knew I was going to be an artist. I used to lay on the floor in the living room with colored pencils for hours drawing our dogs, my Mom as she read, or anything else that caught my eye. For as long as I can remember, I was “the artist” in the family. However, before me it was my great aunt, Robin, the painter and illustrator. She passed away before I was born, but I was gifted her name; something we all now see as fate.
Being an artist trickled down from my great grandfather to her, and skipped a generation down to me. My great grandfather was a photographer and craftsman who always believed in protecting my inner artist. He always told me to continue to paint, draw, and take pictures everywhere I go and taught me the importance of capturing the people we love. When he passed away, I inherited over sixty of his film cameras and my love for photography quickly began to develop…no pun intended.

When I was thirteen years old, I received my first “big girl” camera for Christmas. I then started my independent photography business. At first, I photographed my friends, neighborhood kids, and the girls I used to dance with. It wasn’t too long after that that people started asking me if I did senior portraits, family photos, weddings, etc. Throughout the rest of middle school, I continued to really create an aesthetic within my work and get my name out there. Towards the end of eighth grade, my Mom discovered a Visual and Performing Arts High School not too far away. My original intention was to audition for the theater magnet, but that soon changed. After my portfolio review and “audition” for the art magnet, I realized that where I was meant to be was the studios – not the stage. About a month later, I was accepted to the program and I would go on to spend four years of high school taking classes that were all centered around art. I was incredibly lucky to have attended this school as it became the foundation of a strong portfolio in college.

I first heard about SCAD in freshmen year of high school when a girl from the art magnet was accepted there. I started slowly creating my own “mental folder” of information about SCAD and all that it offered. In my junior year of high school, I convinced myself that I would never get accepted and that I wasn’t “good enough”. I started to lose my drive to want to attend this school and decided I would just tour a state school and be done. My Mom had other plans in mind. After touring University of Florida, she forced me to tour SCAD despite the fact that I cried for a big chunk of the car ride to Savannah. I was so worried I wouldn’t get in and that touring would be like teasing me with something I could never have. The first building we walked into was Poetter Hall – the flagship building of SCAD. The first thing I saw when I walked in was the neon green staircase. I saw it, and immediately burst into tears. It was such a weird staircase and I just knew that I belonged at this school. An hour later, I applied to the school on a computer right next to those stairs. Four months later, on my birthday, I got my acceptance call. I later received a scholarship sufficient enough for SCAD to become a reality. Now, nearly three years later, I am typing this from the SCAD photography building. I am incredibly lucky to be studying under some of the most talented, caring, professors that are the quintessence of what it means to be an artist and teacher. My work would not be what it is without this school. With each and every interaction, I am growing into a stronger photographer and artist and evolving into the person I have always wanted to be.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Ha! That’s funny. Simply put, no. No, it hasn’t. I’ve had a lot of hurdles to jump over but I think the most important one worth talking about is when I was admitted to a mental institution. In my junior year of high school, I spent about a month and a half in an institution due to years of self harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts. I won’t get into all of the details of how I got there, but I can definitely talk about what I learned from my time there and what has come from it.

I think the most important thing I took away from my stay at the facility was that 1. Vulnerability is precious, 2. We all have our demons, and 3. Creating art is the strongest medication I’ve ever had. I think a lot of people are incredibly scared to be vulnerable because of the unknown. We never know how someone may react to our secrets and scary stories. I still don’t know how people will react when they see my scars for the first time, but I have learned that it takes more energy to hide them and hide my history than to show them and embrace being utterly vulnerable as often as I can. This brings me to my next point: we all have sides to ourselves that no one sees, so who are we to judge? Everyone has something that brings them pain and sadness and, on some level, we can all relate to being in pain. I have learned that the best way to cope with my intrusive thoughts is to create. Now, when I am sad or experiencing intense depression, I no longer hurt myself – I create a photograph. Rather than putting negative energy into pain, I am transforming my negative energy into a positive outlet. That is probably the best advice I could ever give to anyone. Focusing all of your energy on your craft, whether it is photography or painting or writing or whatever, can save us. I know it saved me.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I would say that what I am most known for, at least right now, is a project titled “Girls Ward: Left”. This project/series is all about my time in the mental institution three years ago. It is hard to believe looking at it now, but this series actually began in a class at SCAD. Last fall I was in a black and white film photography class with Jaclyn Cori Norman, the woman I would say has transformed me as a photographer. I photographed women in my bathtub in a way that visualized the vulnerable, painful feelings I felt during my time before admittance, during my stay, and after my return to the “real world”. Once the class was over, I created a monograph with the photos and writing. I had poems from old journals, written pieces about every disorder I have experienced, and even my paperwork from the institution. In January, on my three year anniversary of admittance, I had an exhibition/installation of the work that included items from my time there such as letters from family and my blanket I had while there. More recently, my story inspired a written play based on my book. A few weeks ago, I was able to go to Ohio and attend the play and exhibit my work once again. Girls Ward: Left has become the most important project I have ever done and is definitely the series people associate me with.

Aside from this, I am definitely known for black and white photos. I do shoot in color sometimes, but black and white has a timeless, romantic, dream-like quality to it that I am irrevocably in love with. More recently, I have also been associated with photographing children and doing self portraits. I am currently working on a documentary series about twins in Savannah, and that has been a really fun project. That is another series that would not be what it is without the guidance from my professor, Jaclyn. That series did a complete one-eighty in the best way and has now become one of my favorite bodies of work. I am also currently working on a self portrait series that is a continuation of a body of work I started a few months ago shot on 4×5 large format film.

Finding a mentor and building a network are often cited in studies as a major factor impacting one’s success. Do you have any advice or lessons to share regarding finding a mentor or networking in general?
Oh, gosh. I feel like I could write about this for days. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by the most powerful, kind, supportive women. Like I mentioned before, Jaclyn Cori Norman has helped me become the photographer I am today. I owe the world to her for helping me create thought-provoking work from my deepest feelings of sadness and pain. Also, my “power triangle of women”. I am fortunate enough to work in the Office of Student Involvement here at SCAD with three of the most influential women in my life. Patty Henke, Lauren Slaydon, and Elisha Frazer Anderson have completely changed me for the better and helped me through the process of imagining and executing emotionally driven work. All three of them are always there to offer me advice when I fall into a slump whether it be from tapping into my past or learning how to process new triggers. Another amazing warrior woman here at SCAD is Allison Steinweg. God, that woman has talked me through so much and supported me in ways I could only hope to for someone else one day. She is a badass in all categories and has been one of my biggest cheerleaders since I was in her class almost two years ago. I have truly been so fortunate to be surrounded by amazing women that I can look up to and be supported by. My best advice for finding a mentor is to find someone you connect with. Someone that you can relate to on a deeper level. If you feel that connection, don’t question it, run with it!

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Image Credit:
Jordan Petteys

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