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.

Death is Young

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. Usually, its contents include new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about. However, August has been pretty rough, and so I wrote about pet death, family, and life history. If you'd rather look at the art I've been working on, please check out my new art-only instagram account, @edengallanter.

 

This month my sweet, two-year-old cat died of cancer.

One day she was running and playing, and jumping into my lap every time I sat down. The next day she started acting sick, and after two subsequent visits to the hospital, the doctors told me that she had cancer—lymphoma. It was incurable, and she was only going to get worse. We arranged immediately for a vet to come to our home to euthanize her, and she died in my arms. It was so shockingly fast.

If you've ever had a pet to whom you have a special connection, who follows you around the house, who trusts you, and just wants to be near you all the time, you already know that this pet feels like family. Whatever the world family has come to mean to you, it acts as a soft, warm cocoon around your heart. Family, whether made up of biological relatives, caretakers, close friends, partners, or pets, is one of those parts of life that appears to me to be fundamental, and vitally important for survival.

I am very close to my parents, and I know how lucky I am that this is so. Many people I know have bad luck in this regard. They have parents they are unable to connect to, or unable to respect. Some have parents who were cruel, or violent, or neglectful, or who abandoned them. I am fortunate to have parents I can love and admire, and who have always, always strived to be loving, supportive and faithful to me.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My Father. Charcoal on paper.

My parents are also quite old—especially my father, who turned ninety this year. I am writing his biography. This is both intensely pleasurable for my father, and incredibly difficult. There are few happy memories of childhood and youth to detail; an overwhelming number of his recollections are marked by loneliness and tragedy. It is an incredibly intimate experience to do this with him. He has now told me stories he hasn't told anybody else. Sitting with him, holding his hand, sometimes crying with him, while listening to these memories that have been buried for so long, touches me deeply.

In writing a story, we are always haunted by the story's end.

Both my parental grandparents died suddenly of cardiovascular disease in their fifties, his elder brother in his forties, and my father himself survived a triple bypass when I was in the third grade. Nevertheless, he is ninety, and I couldn't help wondering what it would be like when my dad passed away, as I was spending my last remaining days with my sick cat.

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

Anushka. (August 2016 – August 2018)

There is no real way to prepare for tragedy. I believe that the best we can all do is try to face the inevitable, and accept the fact that the world we live in gives us an illusion of control on a truly immense scale. There was no way for me to prepare myself for losing a very young and beloved pet to cancer. All I could do was focus on what mattered, when it happened. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, but I knew that the most important thing was my responsibility to take care of her. In this case, that meant protecting her from suffering any more pain. I stayed awake every night to sit with her. I could barely eat—food choked me. Grief can fill you up and bury you at the same time. The world around us faded. I couldn't even feel the chill of the house, sitting on the floor with her at 4:00 AM. I sat there, with my dying cat leaning against my leg, and I thought about what it would be like to lose my father.

The culture I live in has shielded itself from death. Death happens in hospitals and dark alleyways. Open casket funerals are increasingly rare in this country. The processes of mortality are more secreted away from us that they used to be. But isn't death as natural as the ocean? Can't death be as gentle as the wilting of cut roses, which leave behind a subtle fragrance even after they have faded? It seems to me that life is very short. Living in perpetual fear of tragedy isn't realistic, but at the same time I believe I ought to make the most of whatever time I have with the people I love—my little family, my close friends, and the small number of people who have profoundly inspired and changed the course of my life.

I don't have an answer for grief, or for the inevitability of future grief when you let yourself love someone. Grief is a living creature, with its own logic, its own desires, its own food. All we can do is care for it as tenderly as we would care for anything else we loved.

 

suppose
Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head.

young death sits in a café
smiling,a piece of money held between
his thumb and first finger

(i say “will he buy flowers” to you
and “Death is young
life wears velour trousers
life totters,life has a beard” i

say to you who are silent.—”Do you see
Life?he is there and here,
or that, or this
or nothing or an old man 3 thirds
asleep,on his head
flowers,always crying
to nobody something about les
roses les bluets
                    yes,
                              will He buy?
Les belles bottes—oh hear
,pas chères”)

and my love slowly answered I think so.  But
I think I see someone else

there is a lady,whose name is Afterwards
she is sitting beside young death,is slender;
likes flowers.

- ee cummings, Tulips & Chimneys