Hiraeth Never Fades: Reclaiming My Identity through the Studio

Most of us tend to hang on to greeting cards, some longer than others. Some you never end up throwing away. This year I look fondly at cards from my aunt, my brother, and my sister, from our time together over the holidays. It was our first in my thirty-two years around the sun. Their cards, I will never throw away. At a very early age, I was orphaned and placed into the closed adoption industry. In 2018, I was able to secure my true identity. This was the year that it became legal to access a non-certified copy of my original birth certificate in the state of Pennsylvania and begin searching for my family. As a disclaimer, I grew up with good parents and continue to maintain close relationships with them. To drive the point home on the basics, neither of them could tell me about predispositions to disease or be a match for bone marrow or a kidney should I ever need it. None of the family I grew up with could tell me where I came from, because they did not know either. That was all taken care of before I even met them. You see, "The experts of yesteryear maintained that close adoptions hastened the end of birthmothers' grief, spared them shame, enabled them to go on with their lives, and ensured that their offspring would grow up with secure identities."1 In my case, none of this was true. 

My studio practice has been the key to building a bridge to my past while constructing a future with the family I thought I had lost forever. For all those non-believers out there, it turns out that art does have the power to change lives. It certainly did mine. For better or for worse, I committed myself to make work about the shockwaves that were about to unfold. In the process, I became more of the me I was always supposed to be.

NO COINCIDENCES

After spending the better part of a decade as a potter, education director, and ceramics area head at a contemporary art museum in Montana and after a foray into abstract sculpture with fused glass, I was accepted into graduate school at Georgia State University. GSU turned out to be the perfect environment not only to focus on my studio practice, but also to work through the most difficult part of my life – finding out where I came from, the circumstances leading to the gaping hole in my personal history, and unfathomably connecting with my blood for the first time.

During my first semester of continued work on abstract sculpture, a faculty member asked me what was most important in my life right now. No one had ever asked me a question that daunting within an art context, but I quickly learned this is part of graduate school. The answer to this question was easy, but it was hard to communicate. I fessed up and told the professor that I was in the midst of trying to get information from the adoption agency that placed me, and that they hadn’t been returning my calls. In response, my teacher told me that my job over the coming months was to try and find out as much as I could. The teacher also told me to consider using this in my studio practice – to make work about this, the most important journey of my life.

Without the combination of factors that led me to begin searching for my roots while still in Montana, and the support specifically from GSU's Ceramics Department, I do not think I would be writing this article, nor would I be working with adoption as content. I could have ended up somewhere else doing something else – but in hindsight, I know I was meant to have that conversation, and it was probably meant to happen exactly as it did.

My aunt, who was in the room when I was born, says, “There are no coincidences,”and on the journey to secure my identity, I have come to believe that’s true. Without my experiences in Montana and that conversation in graduate school, my life and art would probably look very different right now. Without the demand from my developing studio practice, that gaping hole in my personal history would likely still be there.

With encouragement from the faculty at GSU, I began to ramp up on calling the adoption agency that handled my placement. Instead of the usual voicemail, I finally got someone on the phone. They told me Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania signed a bill into law making it legal for adults to petition for a copy of their birth records. Up until this point, I was essentially in the dark about how to navigate the adoption system. I was also unaware, until this time, that I had an original identity, that my original identity was secured under lock and key somewhere. Until Governor Wolf passed the bill, all the information about my adoption had been legally inaccessible. 

When I eventually obtained the non-certified copy of my birth certificate from the state of Pennsylvania, I found that someone existed before Jeff Kuratnick. His name was Anthony Zelinski. The way the adoption system worked in my home state at the time, Anthony had to die in a sense, or at least be carefully tucked out of sight, so that Jeff could exist. In the intervening years, I learned that other people died too; my mother and eldest sister have since passed, and I found out that my brother and sister did not really grow up with either of them. In a way, they are like me in all of this. They did not know much. 

Thankfully my aunt did, and let me know our entire family history, the circumstances that led to my adoption and an olive branch. To my surprise, my aunt confirmed my birth family always wanted me to come back into their lives one day. The only hurdle was that the government had my identity under lock and key. They could not find out anything about me, and I could not find anything out about them. In the era of closed adoptions, most people in the US never gain legal rights to their family. Some spend thousands of dollars trying to track down the people who brought them into this world, only to reach dead ends. Others live a life in a perpetual state of wonder, and some ignore that part of who they are and move on without ever knowing or wanting to know their true identities. After years of good work by advocates across the state, the law in Pennsylvania changed. Just at the time when I was ready to reclaim my identity, I was able to. No coincidences. 

DECISIONS

At first, working through the revelations about my personal history in the studio was cathartic. After I had some knowledge about the people that brought me into this world, I began to get to know them the only way I could – through photographs. Armed with twenty-odd family photos, I scanned them into the computer and began printing them off to transfer their silhouettes onto wafer-thin bisque tiles I had made. I began drawing over the outlines of the figures in the photos with stick charcoal so I could get to know the family I had lost through the adoption process. Transferring the charcoal laden copies with sponge and water, I then went over the outlines again by hand painting on clear glaze, firing them to temperature, and finishing with a smoke firing technique.

Despite the difficulty of this exercise, the difficulty of looking at the photographs and lamenting about the “what if's,” I knew this process was important. The fifty tiles I completed forced me to acknowledge that these people were part of my family, and that I could know them in some sort of fleeting way. Making this work forced me to become comfortable talking about this part of my life that I pushed away for so many years. These tiles effectively set me on the course for developing a body of work about the injustices of the domestic adoption industry in the United States and my place in it.

My history as a maker has informed the iconographic development of my experience with closed adoption. Culminating with an exhibition, the forms I work with not only speak to the production, repetition, and labor that is often at the core of the ceramics experience, but also to the arduous process of securing my identity. Choosing to inject historical forms (urns and portrait busts) into the contemporary context of installation parallels the bridge I had to build – beam by beam – to reclaim my past and drag it into the here and now. The stacked paper and daisies fill the senses with ambiguity regarding their collective meaning – which also parallels my prior work in abstraction.

I knew I wanted to pursue installation with this body of work. As I continued to refine content and formal qualities, I decided that organizing rooms where people are immersed in the visual representation of my experiences with closed adoption was important. French conceptual artist Christian Boltanski's oeuvre provides a direct line to what I want my audience to consider when encountering this hyper-personal body of work. Discussing the development of his studio practice, Boltanski states, "I have been interested in what is known as total art. The important thing for me is not to place yourself in front of something else, but to get inside, to plunge into the work. You have to forget yourself."2

HIRAETH NEVER FADES

Hiraeth Never Fades is an exhibition about the process of securing my true identity and reconnecting with the family I had lost for so many years, some of which I have lost forever. A Welsh concept that is difficult to translate into English, hiraeth can be summated as "a grinding, debilitating longing. A loss colder and harder than stone: a broken spiral; a cut line; the clouded sun."3 For me, the loss of my family will never fade. Still, I am thankful for the people I will never get the chance to know, and for those that were waiting for me on the other side of closed adoption. 

The exhibition is meant to take patrons on a journey into the experience of breaking down a door to access a hidden past. I explore ideas of secretly wondering who my family was while being isolated from them, coming to terms with tragedy and loss upon reunion, and learning to connect with the remaining family I was so lucky to find. Formally, the exhibition employs several forms – the urn, stacked paper, self-portrait bust, and daisy – in various iterations. 

URNS

Doing everything I could to convince my blood relatives it was okay to talk to me on the phone, I knew hearing their voices might only happen once and no more. I knew they could reject the possibility of me being a part of their lives, and I had to prepare for the worst. As the date and times for the phone calls came, I made sure to record them. If they did not want anything to do with me, I would at least have a recording of their voices. Finding out my mother and eldest sister passed away, and the rattling conversations I had with family members about their untimely deaths are all folded into the repeating urn in Hiraeth Never Fades

   

Most of us understand the relationship between our adult self and our inner child. The inner child gives us roots. It grounds us in our adult life with explanations of why or how or when. Imagine instead of a whole and intact inner child, there is a void. That void is the orphan's reality.  Having no access to their foundational grounding, the orphan has missed the most important part of the conversation.  Several of the urns in the exhibit hold recorded phone conversations playing on a loop inside, while the others are barren, recreating the presence of history and the void. The audience struggles to comprehend recordings emanating, incomprehensible, from within the urns. Incomprehensible because it is locked away from them. Access denied, the urns are metaphors for the adoptee's struggle to reclaim identity. In a broader context, the urns also act as a death knell for the identities of millions that will never have the legal ability to reclaim theirs, spending a lifetime wondering what their own family's voices sound like only to be denied the opportunity by an antiquated law. Here the audience seeks the truth but is only provided a redacted version of it.

SELF-PORTRAIT BUSTS

The self-portrait bust serves several functions in the exhibition. As an avatar of my experiences, the hand-sculpted and press-mold replicated self appears in various iterations. Some busts, appearing in green and white, are overtaken by bureaucracy – sinking into or emerging from stacked paper files, wherein their identities lay. Other busts appear charred, having gone through a hellish experience much like the urns, or appear full of holes and perforated. Some have their eyes shut because they cannot bear to look. Some are staring at each other, soaked in the cocktail of shock, curiosity, skepticism, and fear I had when I met my younger sister for the first time. The revelation that I not only had a sister but locking eyes with someone that shared my features was like being in an alternate reality.

Moving on from the initial shock of connecting with a blood relative for the first time, I began obscuring features to create fragmented busts, disabling them from sight, sound, and speech in various iterations – in a kind of death-work, a theory developed by French psychoanalyst Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. "Death-work involves the fundamental process of unbinding [of the ego], of fragmentation, of breaking up, of separation, of bursting.4 This concept of death-work is highlighted through the fragmentation and overall appearance of select busts.

In describing an encounter between an able body and a disabled body, Pontalis states, "The specular moment between the armored, unified self and its repressed double – the fragmented body – is characterized by a kind of death-work, repetition compulsion in which the unified self continuously sees itself undone – castrated, mutilated, perforated, made partial."5 When the able-bodied are in proximity to a disabled body, Pontalis states those who are, "missing senses (blindness, deafness, etc.) become in fantasy, visual echoes of the primal fragmented body we cling to in the earliest stages of life – a signifier for lack of wholeness."6

  

If Pontalis' theory is, in fact, hard-wired in our brains, the experience of reclaiming my identity has forced the process of death-work into an unnaturally internal, one-person conflict that I reflect back in the exhibition. Juxtaposing my true identity (the repressed double) with the identity adoption granted me (the unified false-self) in multiple iterations speaks to the process that plays out over and over again as I continue to wrestle with my dueling histories.

Both the false unified-self and the repressed double appear in various games of death-work throughout the exhibition. This constant repetition mirrors my struggle with uncovering the truth about who I am as my ego became fundamentally unbound in the process. In these scenarios, I consider the repressed double (Anthony) and his role in constructing my future. The only question for the audience is who is who? Are they the same, or separate? Most importantly, how can they reconcile to move forward as one?

DAISIES

Porcelain daisies round out the exhibition, acting both as a symbol for the mother I lost and as a metaphor for the entire process of reclaiming my identity. The entryway to Hiraeth Never Fades is lined five feet across with the fragile slip-cast flowers. The audience has an essential choice to make: walk an uncomfortable path, a path of potential destruction where you may break something precious by merely deciding to walk, or choose to turn around and never find out what is on the other side, relinquishing the opportunity to connect and interact. 

The daisies mirror the process of uncovering who I am and where I came from, step by arduous step, learning who my family is, and the catastrophic circumstances that took those I would have loved away from this world. In addition to being placed in other parts of the installation, the beautifully intact flowers at the entryway are destroyed by simply making an encounter. Activated by audience participation, the daisies are a metaphor for what became of my former sense of self before uncovering my personal history, and the shattered hope for reunification with my full family unit. 

  

LARGER THAN ME

As stated in the opening paragraphs, art has the power to change lives, and it surely did mine. It provided the strength and courage to move through the obstacle course to earn my personal history and birth family. The push from my studio practice helped give me a brother, a sister, a toddler nephew that loves big rig trucks, and an aunt who was in the room when I was born. Although we live miles apart currently, we get to see each other with the power of technology and spend time together every chance I get to go back home. Still, in the early stages of reunion and developing relationships with my family, I am far from done examining this issue through the lens of the studio.

Currently, there are twenty states in the US (plus the District of Columbia) which have sealed birth records that provide no access or minimal access to identity without a highly unlikely court order.7 An additional twenty-one states have various levels of restriction placed on access to identity. Only nine states allow unrestricted access to identity for adoptees.8

Rhetorically, I ask, what are we afraid of? Why can't these records be unsealed? We are talking about 2% of the total US population9 and potentially less as "today, almost 60%-70% of domestic adoptions are now open adoptions, which means there is a degree of openness and disclosure of information between adoptive and birth parents regarding the adopted child."10

Including my own, "the adoptions between strangers that took place in the United States in the decades after World War II were unduly 'closed.' The parties were anonymous; the procedures were confidential; the official records sealed."11 I know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to open versus closed adoption practices. Each case is different, yet protecting the autonomy of the adoptive family has historically been the primary goal of crafting policy. I still fervently argue, however, that at a fundamental human level, everyone should have the right to know where they came from and their family medical histories. Not everyone will have a rose-colored-glasses version of reunion with their birth families, but they should at least have the chance to try if they want to. Furthermore, no one should prohibit you from your next of kin or identity for a lifetime, not even the government. For many, adoption is a life of perpetual hiraeth, and it just does not have to be. It should not be.

Hiraeth Never Fades runs May 9th – 23rd, 2020, at the Sinclair Gallery of the ARTSXCHANGE, Atlanta, Georgia and is supported in part by Georgia State University's Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design. Reception is Saturday, May 9th, 6 pm – 9 pm, schedule dependent upon response to COVID-19 safety measures. Partial Proceeds from the sale of porcelain daisies will go toward the GEORGIA ADOPTION REUNION REGISTRY; a non-profit program helping adopted persons gain knowledge about their birth histories and helping birth families connect with their relatives. 


Endnotes

[1] [11] Hanslanger, Sally and Charlotte Witt, eds. Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.                                                   

[2] Bui, Stephanie. “Interview with Christian Boltanski,” Crash Magazine, January 12, 2018, https://www. crash.fr/our-interview-with-christian-boltanski/.

[3] Jones, Liz Riley. Hiraeth a Mark-Marc. Leicester, UK: Troubador Publishing Ltd, 2015. 

[4] [5] [6] Davis, Lennard J., “Visualizing the Disabled Body: The Classical Nude and the Fragmented Torso” (from Enforcing Normalcy) in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, eds. Vincent B. Leitch and Jeffrey Williams (New York: Norton, 2001). 

[7] [8] American Adoption Congress. “State Adoption Legislation.” Americanadoptioncongress.org. https://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/state.php(accessed October 15, 2019).

[9] [10] Adoption Network Law Center. “US Adoption Statistics.”  Adoptionnetwork.com  https://adoptionnetwork.com/adoption-statistics(accessed February 24, 2020).