The stories we tell

The stories we tell, The Korean Adoptee Portrait Project 20x24" graphite on clay board, A.D. Herzel

The name tag is one of the last parts of the portrait. More than anything drawing the name tag reminds me of the photographer, reminds me of the orphanage. When imagining the portrait one thinks of the image and the artist, but when drawing an adoptee photo the photographer is also present. At times in the photo there is a foster mother holding the baby. There may even be a woman’s hands, but their identities are often cut out of the frame.

But the photographer, I always wonder as I draw who he or she was. And then there is the writer of the name tag. As I draw the letters, I think about the handwriting. I draw the letters with my pencil though most are originally written with a marker. Every hand is different. I note the speed and the style of the writing and I become the hand. I wonder what other part the writer played in the unwritten story and suddenly the room is crowded.

The portraits are not just drawings for me. As an adoptee they are like the river of time. With each portrait, even if the adoptee has had the best adoptive family, experience, and life, I must wade into the river. Each time, I swim and immerse myself in the mist of forgotten stories I invariably meet myself.

MMG, the latest participant told me this, “my mother calls this the pity photo.” When she said this I could feel something tighten and shrink inside me. What was it? What was in the river I could not find? What dark fish was swimming around me that I could not name?

These photos are precious to me, as mine is to me. The image etched on paper by light and chemistry holds the mystery of my past, marks a happening in a room full of strangers and unknown stories. The photos are all I have and all some others have too. This alone makes them sacred, though I know some don’t weigh them that way.

But there was something more. There was the word, “pity.” It took weeks after the first drawing, and then even after avoiding the drawing and the feeling until it came to me. It was a thing my adoptive mother used to say, “You’re so pitiful.” It was the way she used the word, with sarcasm, hard, ugly and shameful. When directed at me I was rendered speechless and full of darkness. This is a feeling I have only felt in nightmares since my childhood. And even those nightmares stopped decades ago. Yet, here was that feeling like a sticky goblin. I do not use this word and have not heard it used in so long.

When standing in the river I never know where the currents will come from. I am susceptible to the under tow. It is difficult to squeeze out the dirty waters of the past as they take the air from my lungs. Four more portraits and I will be done.

Thank you, Melissa for sharing your beautiful photo. Where others may see sadness, I see hope and beauty. I hope you can see the love I have given your portrait. I hope you can see it is a tribute to your river of time and not simply a drawing.

Learn more about the project and see the portfolio here:!Group2_Pf190792




Artist, teacher,mother and wife, adoptee; writer about all of the above.

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A.D. Herzel

A.D. Herzel

Artist, teacher,mother and wife, adoptee; writer about all of the above.

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