The Pleiades

There are five people in my life with whom I've had what I call creative relationships. I don’t mean to suggest that they were all significant others—in fact, only one of them was a romantic partnership. When I think of them, I see a tremendous beauty of mind. If they have any unifying traits, this is it.

I've been thinking of them for some time as the Pleiades—who, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione. They inherited the animistic traits of their nature deity mother, and the weight of the universe from their titan father. I believe I see each of them for who they are, rather than who I wanted them or needed them to be (which is really the best and purest kind of intimacy). At the same time, these are deeply subjective relationships because these people hold such important places in my life. I know how burdensome this can be. I don't know that any of them even wanted such a role, but love is like that sometimes.

I will probably never stop missing them. All I can do is hope that I contributed something good to their lives, as well.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

One of the beautiful things about love is that one cares more about the other person's happiness and well-being than about having them in one’s life. I am glad the Pleiad who died is free from a painful disease. I am glad my far-away friends have found a better life for themselves than they would have had here, and I accept the two relationships that have ended—indeed, I am grateful to have had these people in my life at all, even if I never see them again.

I am not exaggerating when I say that these people fundamentally changed who I am as an artist. I have a lot of sadness about the fact that I am no longer in close contact with any of them. As I move closer to being a mom, I find myself thinking about the people I want my daughter to know. She will find her own people, though, and she will likely to find herself and her work in different parts of the world than I do. Nevertheless, it’s sad that my Pleiades will exist to her primarily as stories.

This month I made a new painting in my insect/flower series: Gadfly x Lotus. Whereas, in the previous paintings, I experimented with convergent forms and species, I am now experimenting with symbols and concepts. It was a gadfly that the goddess Hera sent to sting the maiden Io, transformed into a white calf by one of the many love-interests of Zeus. She was condemned to wander the world as a cow, seeking relief from the bite of Hera’s gadfly. The hero Odysseus's men fell prey to the land of the lotus-eaters. As soon as they ate from the flowers, they stopped caring about their former lives, thereby entering a kind of dreamlike oblivion.

I think I'm not the only person who finds oblivion more frightening than suffering. One of my Pleiad friends, Wolf, was once in the hospital. I had never seen anyone in so much pain before. Finally, the nurses administered so much medication that it was a constant struggle to even stay conscious. Wolf became very frightened, and elected to lower the dosage, even if it meant dealing with a level of pain that was close to intolerable. I think I’d have felt the same way. Many of us would rather look a monster in the face than endure its presence in the darkness.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Another Pleiad I called Rabbit. Wolf and Rabbit probably did the most to inform my identity: both of them thrust me much farther down the road towards my ideals than I ever would have gotten without them. I'm not just talking about the perfectionistic drive to reach certain standards of personal achievement, I'm also talking about moral issues—which is always a part of my art: my social responsibilities, how I ought to treat other people, my duty to stretch my sphere of influence. I admire both of these people tremendously. Rabbit in particular seemed to symbolize what I myself might accomplish if I worked hard enough. She certainly deserved the high opinion I always had of her, but I see now that it probably wasn't a fair friendship. I was always struggling to keep up, and this likely had negative effects on my own progress, and may have damaged our friendship. Nobody benefits from pedestals—all they do is force people apart.

I made art with only two Pleiad friends. One is a truly brilliant poet named Raphael Matto (you can buy his books here), who informed a lot of my early drawings and writing. His work still helps me whenever I need to look at my art from a literary perspective. I still keep particular thoughts and feelings in some of his poems, perfectly intact and waiting for me whenever I need them.

The other Pleiad I used to call my steam-engine, and I am still learning things from our now long-past conversations, experiences, and drawings. Before I met her, I didn't understand how to make non-representational art, or even how to think in a non-representational way. I think mainly in pictures, and I think she thought mainly in numbers. I had always viewed numbers-based thinking as unreachable for me, but with her I saw that seemingly disparate cognitive approaches could be analogous. The categorical language of images and the quantitative language of numbers and algorithms had common ground, and there was a network of interlocking, subterranean tunnels between them. These connections, in the context of a person I admired so much—and at the same time, felt such close kinship with—have expanded the way I think. Many people feel lost when they look at abstract art, but it's really very simple: all you need is the ability to love something without knowing what it is. However, the implications of this are immensely complex. All of a sudden there is context for relating to everything; the edge of the universe is simply gone.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

The very first Pleiad I met died in 2013. Dr. Hudson was a professor who taught me to value what I found meaningful even when nobody else did. I had an artistic style that wasn't popular with my art teachers, and a writing style that the English department found "too weird". When I visited Dr. Hudson in his office, we talked about literature, travel, languages, philosophy, and science. While I didn't always feel understood, I learned that it didn't matter. All that mattered was that I loved my work. I’m not sure I agree that we should always believe in ourselves. After all, sometimes we really aren’t competent or trustworthy—nobody is. But I do believe, thanks to Dr. Hudson, that we should always, always believe in what we love.

He gave me so much, but I'm not sure what I ever gave him; he just seemed to enjoy talking to me. Perhaps being a father figure was simply a role he enjoyed—I know that he kept in touch with other students long after they graduated. He was never too busy to listen to me, never laughed at my problems, and was always fearlessly open, sharing his stories, his interests, and his vast knowledge and experience, whenever I asked. I know I probably needed him much more than he needed anything from me, but that is, after all, the nature of parenthood.

And I suppose I can make a return on his kindness to me by doing the same for my future daughter.