Finding Herself

Ann Fessler draws from her life as an adopted child to create her art and performance works.

March 12, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Ann Fessler sat in her car on a street in an Ohio town, weighing the cost of her curiosity.

The artist had approached her questions about her origins in a roundabout way for years, putting together exhibit after exhibit about adoption. Whenever anyone pointed out that the artist herself was adopted, she shrugged it off.

She, after all, was raised in a loving, supportive family. She always felt wanted, and her family was sensitive to the needs of adopted children. Her mother was adopted. So was her brother. "I didn't set out to be an adoption artist," she says.

Nonetheless, there she sat, trying to decide whether she should get out of her car, walk up to a house she'd never been in and introduce herself to her biological mother.

Fessler's two most recent works, Close to Home and Everlasting, are at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery through Sunday. The artist, a photography professor at MICA from 1982 to 1993, now teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

The show is filled with sights and sounds reminiscent of Fessler's girlhood in an Ohio farm town in the 1950s: Round iron cribs, one filled with corn. (Crib - think of the double meaning.) Cracks in the ceiling through which shine filtered points of light. The soothing, irregular rhythm of crickets.

The exhibit's centerpiece is a room containing seven wooden dining-room chairs - elegant, feminine, solid - set in a circle. These chairs are meant to evoke the owners of the seven voices that visitors will hear.

The voices belong to Baltimore- and Washington-area women who gave up their babies for adoption between 1945 and 1973. The soft sounds continually overlap and trade off, so it is difficult at first to tell who is talking. Just when you get interested in one woman's story, another begins. Perhaps that's the point.

This is what Fessler knows for sure:

She was born to a large farm family which lived in a riverfront town near Dayton. She is of German and English heritage, as is evidenced in her straight, blond hair and athletic physique. She was born in 1949 to an 18-year-old woman named Eleanor who would rather work outside than help with household chores.

This is what Fessler does not know: Whether anyone in her birth family shares her artistic interests or ability. The name of her biological father. Whether contacting her birth mother would ruin that woman's life - and her own.

"I've heard all kinds of stories: good, bad and ugly," she says. "In one kind of story, the mother hadn't anticipated ever being contacted, and when she is, it turns her life upside down. How does she explain to her children that she's lied to them all these years?"

When Fessler was on a sabbatical from MICA, she put together her first exhibit, Genetics Lesson. At the show's opening in 1990, a woman approached her and said, "You could be my long-lost daughter. You look like the perfect combination of me and the father of my child."

For a moment, the artist couldn't remember how to inhale or blink or swallow. "You don't know what you're saying to me," Fessler finally replied. "I was adopted. I could be your daughter."

Could be, but wasn't. The birth dates were a year off.

Still. Not only was the coincidence eerie, it was apparent that the older woman had been scanning every female face she came across for four decades, seeking the grown-up version of the small, thumbprint features that she remembered.

Fessler was so affected by the encounter that her second exhibit, Ex/Changing Families dealt explicitly with adoption. She later made a video about her adoptive parents, Cliff and Hazel.

Meanwhile, Fessler's own story nagged at her. She obtained her birth certificate, which she was entitled to under Ohio law. On a business trip, she visited her birth mother's riverfront hometown, seeking her high-school yearbook. Someone at the school mentioned that a man with the same last name lived down the road.

Fessler drove over. "I met my uncle," she said. She didn't feel as though she could tell him the truth, so she posed as the daughter of a former schoolmate of Eleanor's. Soon, he was chatting away, telling Fessler all about his kid sister. He even provided a current address.

That is how the artist came to be sitting in her car on a street in an Ohio town, weighing the cost of her curiosity.

Questions remain

Fessler plans on re-creating the exhibit in other cities nationwide, using a new group of local women each place she sets up. She will reach them in the same way she reached the Baltimore and Washington women, by contacting support organizations for birth mothers and adoptees. When she is finished, the tapes will become part of the archive of Radcliffe College's Schlesinger Library and available for future researchers in women's history.

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