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.
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.
All of which leads naturally to the question: Perhaps Fessler, who never did get out of the car that day, should mount her exhibit in central Ohio. Who knows? Maybe Eleanor would volunteer her own oral history. Birth mother and daughter could meet that way.
Fessler laughs. "No," she says. "I don't think so. Sometime, I will write her a letter. Probably."
Probably. Family is precious - and fragile, and fraught. One is as many as most people can handle. "As an adoptee, you're curious, but you already have a family," Fessler says.
"You're not looking to have a second one. What's typical is that the mothers who surrendered their children want more of an ongoing relationship than the adoptee does. The grown-up child might say, 'Now that I know who you are, I don't want a relationship with you,' and it can be really traumatic for everyone. It's not something you dive into lightly."
This ambivalence is articulated in the final image with which Fessler leaves visitors to Everlasting. At the end of a darkened hallway is a video screen showing a continuous loop of footage of a family, circa 1950. The mother, smiling widely. The father, tossing his little boy in the air. The child, laughing soundlessly. They all look so happy.
But the film seems to be played in reverse. The closer you get to the screen, the farther away the people in the film get from the camera. The ideal family, receding endlessly.
When: Through Sunday. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery, 1300 Mount Royal Ave.
Call: 410-225-2300 or go to www.mica.edu/everlasting