Exploring my adoptee experience through art

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The facts of my adoptee experience are similar to others: Born to a young mother without support who reluctantly ‘gave me up’; raised knowing I was ‘special’ but feeling inwardly insecure; anxiety and depression; struggling to accept my adoption (with professional support); reunion in my 20s; negotiating trauma and low self-esteem while also having moments of joy and resolution. Art allows me to explore and express this experience at an emotional level. Numerous themes – vulnerability, separation, relationships, identity, anger, isolation – surface in my work. My adoption was characterised by secrecy, so speaking through art is part of overcoming this. Given that adoptees are not always well understood, I believe art is invaluable for conveying our experiences beyond sterile statistics and generalised stereotypes.

For example

Landscape (for my birth mother), c2002. Pen & ink on recycled paper, 120 x 12 cm

Having reunited with my birth mother I discovered we share a creative side. As well as exchanging family photos we exchanged our landscape photography. Here I extended this to drawings, composing a series of them on hand made sheets of paper which my birth mother gave to me as a gift - and which I gave back to her as completed artworks. This consists of several small drawings which join together to create a long landscape scene. Each one features a tree which has a unique position in the landscape; distant, close up, cowering below the horizon, etc. I gave the first drawing to my birth mother on Mothers’ Day, presented inside a Japanese notebook (a long unfolding sheet) and then posted one drawing every month until the landscape was ‘reunited’.

Self portrait of Paula Barker by Nicole Porter, 2005. Permanent marker & correction fluid on paper, 150 x 100 cm

This portrait, a reinterpretation of Mother and Child iconography, uses a child’s umbilical cord to trace the silhouette of an imagined Mother. This was the first publicly exhibited work I signed as Paula Barker (my pre-adoption name / self). The signature is written in permanent marker and then concealed with correction fluid. I regularly use these mediums, both for their material qualities – the boldness of markers and the shimmering translucency of correction fluid - and for their associations with concealment and permanence.

New Arrivals, 2009. installation (Recycled children’s dolls, fabric, paper, spotlights, signage, fan) dimensions variable [detail].

New Arrivals is a piece I installed in a vacant shopfront. The six week installation mirrored the first six weeks’ of my life, a period of suspended identity between my birth identity and my adopted one. The window was draped in a dark curtain, with a series of small apertures providing intimate access to the inner world I created. Behind the curtain a theatrical shadowy space, like a frozen stage set, was inhabited by dozens of unreachable naked second-hand dolls suspended from the ceiling by their umbilical cords

 

Art allows me to explore and express my adoptee experience at an emotional and psychological level. Numerous themes – vulnerability, separation, relationship issues, identity, anger, isolation – surface in my works. I reveal these feelings and attitudes to myself and others through the works I make.