How art—and memes—help us rethink what a family can be.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, my friend Jess reposted a brief manifesto by poet and artist Lora Mathis on Facebook about different models of love and relationships. In bold black letters on a pink background, it asked readers to “embrace platonic intimacy.” I saw the post on my phone while with my wife, Christina, waiting in a dark theater for a play to start. Jess and I were close, and the message resonated with how I thought about our friendship. I clicked the like button. The actors assembled onstage.
In the series The Three: Senior Love Triangle, photographer Isadora Kosofsky documents the relationship among three elderly people at a senior-care facility. The trio comprises a man and two women, both of whom are his romantic partners. The arrangement is loving and supportive but the triangle is imbalanced. The women are just friends, and navigating competing affections with the same man proves difficult. A photograph from that series, shown above, was on view earlier this year in the installation Art of Care, which examined the ways artists have pictured and envisioned acts of caregiving.
A year and a half after our date at the theater, Christina and I split up. We were more like siblings than partners by then. While the actual divorce was easy, imagining our futures without each other was daunting. But, we eventually thought, who says we have to live apart just because we’re not a couple?
Six months later, Christina helped me buy a house, where she lives too. Jess, who’s now my partner, moved in with us. Some folks don’t understand how we make it work. But it’s simple. We made a love triangle, one where platonic and romantic bonds share equal weight. We made a family.
In the photograph, Kosofsky focuses her attention on the two women from the trio. The woman in a red coat holds open a door. The morning sun hits the glass and forms a rectangle of light. Within that frame, we witness a moment of connection between the woman in red and the woman in black. They hold hands, and the woman in black rests her other hand on the first woman’s back. It’s unclear whether she is physically supporting her or just showing affection.
But the distinction hardly matters. In this moment, we don’t see tension or discord. Their touch is tender and familiar. One woman gives her love freely. The other accepts it with grace.
I think back to Jess’s post on Valentine’s Day. Its final lines implore us to “offer support readily / take care of the / people around [us].” The message shouldn’t feel radical, nor should my blended family. But they both do nonetheless. Circumstances can teach us that intimacy is neither scarce nor immutable. So can memes. So can art.
Alexa Vallejo is the cataloguing and metadata services specialist in the museum’s Library and Archives.