When School Becomes Home

On the car radio on Sunday, I caught the tail end of a To The Best Of Our Knowledge episode – Was The Art Worth All The Pain ? – that was an interview with the visual collage artist, Nathaniel Mary Quinn. What really got my attention was, even though he was not an adoptee – abandonment and trauma issues – were quite similar to what most adoptees experience. And his resilience and maturing perspective on what happened to him in his earlier childhood was inspiring and remarkable. At the end of the episode, he indicates the abandonment he experienced gave him faith in a larger reality that he interprets as Divinely guided in which what happened to him was necessary for him to become what he was capable of.

When he was 15, his family simply disappeared, leaving him to fend for himself at his boarding school. He had earned a scholarship at a really high quality school. His mother had died and when he came home for what he expected to be a Thanksgiving shared with his 4 older brothers and father, he found an empty, abandoned apartment. It was traumatic not knowing where any of his family was but he returned to school and worked hard. Really hard. He developed a study schedule and stuck to it because he knew he was one bad report card away from losing his scholarship and becoming homeless.

At school, he was fed 3 or more meals a day and had to wear a uniform so clothes were not an issue. On Sundays, the school band he was part of at Culver Academy in Chicago would put on a parade performance. Afterwards, when everyone else went to lunch, he went to a mound of grass on a golf course and grieved to a song by Al Green – on repeating loop 10 times – for 4 full years.

Today, he is an acknowledged artist with works included in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His first solo exhibition was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Quinn’s work is a complicated blend of painting and drawing that achieves the appearance of collage, a combination of human faces with comic book figures and other provocative images. Quinn describes his art as “luminism.”

“The technique of light,” says Quinn. “It’s the torch that I’m carrying from the platform of cubism. Cubism was a technique designed to show multiple angles and viewpoints of a particular object, but to show it on the same plane. “Well, luminism is designed to show the multiplicity of viewpoints and dispositions of the internalized world of that object.”

“Whereas in cubism one would paint the multiplicity of viewpoints of a cup, luminism will show the multiplicity of viewpoints of the internalized world of that cup,” he says. He applies a perspective of luminism to collages of human, often family, figures from his life.  His art draws on a difficult upbringing spent in an impoverished public housing project in Chicago with a broken family.

It can be uncomfortable to look at. His collaged and fragmented figures are meant to demonstrate that we are all the sum of our experiences. In his words, “I hope to convey a sense of how our experiences, both good and bad, operate to construct our identities. I also want to portray a mutual relationship between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the grotesque and what is aesthetically pleasing.” Formed from an amalgam of family photographs, images from articles and advertisements, and his own furious brushstrokes and charcoal marks, the men and women who populate his compositions appear as hybrids, at once monstrous and delicate. For Quinn, they are portraits of his fractured family and images of all human beings’ multi-faceted selves.

Why Is Adoption So Common Here ?

It’s a known fact that other countries have very few adoptions annually. Some as few as 100-300. This is vastly lower than the US obviously. One of the main contributing factors is the better social programs in those countries.  We don’t have that in the US.  Other countries focus on helping families stay together.

I do believe that if we provided families with what they needed, like some of these other countries do, the percentage of parents losing their children would be significantly lower.  Domestic infant adoption would basically cease to exist.

What needs to change for there to be fewer adoptions overall ?

Some thoughts in answer to that question . . .

Universal healthcare and an adequate minimum wage.  Readily available, affordable childcare for working families.  Both generous paid maternity and paternity leave. Paid vacation time which allows for families to create happy memories (I had that in my 50s and 60s era childhood). A good educational system.  Just the basic stuff I grew up believing this country provided (even if it wasn’t actually the truth, which I now understand in maturity).

I do believe that if we actually supported families, the adoption rate might drop 80%.  I do believe the vast majority of adoptions are caused by poverty or I would imagine if we actually supported all moms, it would reduce it by at least 80%. I do believe the vast majority of adoptions are caused by poverty or religion based coercion utilizing shame to get young women to give up their child.

The nature of capitalism is such, that society won’t do these things to keep families thriving.  It isn’t that we can’t, if the tax structures were in place to raise taxes on the wealthy.  Many people in our society have bought the Republican line about Trickle Down Economics.  The belief that if we help the 1% have more, they will help the rest of us do better too. That has never proven a reality – plain and simple.

Until we as a society decide that every citizen is worthy of a good quality of life, broken families will continue to be way too common.

Case in point – Australia.  They don’t have an exorbitant income tax, but they do have universal health care, subsidized childcare, parental leave, sick leave, a minimum wage etc. Support payments are available to family members who take on caring roles. So do the UK and New Zealand.

If one looks at the number of children adopted each year in Australia, the number is about 300.  That’s ALL children who are adopted from infants to teens. They do not have an adoption “market” (yes, it is a BIG $$$ business in the US).  Taxes in Australia may be higher than in the US but they know that they are getting plenty of services in return.

Sadly, the problem here in the US is entrenched inequality and cultural bigotry.  Many countries outside of the US have much better social programs – most EU countries, Canada, Switzerland and Australia.  Knowing this, it is pretty amazing that this country won’t do better.  We are the richest nation in the world, but most of our money goes into the pockets of our richest citizens.  America is the country with the most billionaires in the world.

It is way past time for a change. That change requires accessible, affordable family planning (birth control and terminations), no private for profit adoption agencies and an end to the manipulation and coercion (Christian) of expectant mothers.

Sadly, adoption has become so ingrained in the American worldview as a means to getting a child that our society is hostile to the idea of children staying with who they were born to. It is all about who has money and who doesn’t.  Anyone with the financial means who wants a child is basically able to, in effect, buy one from someone who doesn’t have the financial means to help their family stay together.  Money is the driver of the for profit adoption complex. Sadly, given all I have shared above, I don’t see any of it changing any time soon.  I wish I could be more optimistic about it.