Adopted artist Michael Cook shares his tale of love and loss through his work
THE “mother” is always alone, her baby absent, although evidence of a child remains in the empty pram, abandoned toys on the hopscotch court, the slackness of the skipping rope.
The images form part of artist Michael Cook’s story. Adopted at three weeks of age, Cook had his first break at the age of 14 working in a one-hour photo lab and spent years trying to find his natural mother as well as discover more about his Aboriginal heritage.
In the space of six years, the Sunshine Coast artist, aged 48, had gone from having never participated in an art exhibition to seeing his work collected by every significant public collection in Australia, and many overseas.
His first collection of work was chosen by the National Gallery of Australia even though an artist is supposed to spend years banging on gallery doors.
He has also been included in numerous important exhibitions in Australia, Asia, America and Europe.
Brisbane art collector Andrew Baker, who first realised Cook’s potential, said the artist was one of the most significant of his generation.
Recently, Cook also won first prize in the 2016 Sunshine Coast Art Prize for his entry, Tennis (above), from his Mother series.
Judge Jane Deeth said there were a number of ways of making art – by describing the real world, expressing feelings, and arranging forms and lines and colours and contrasts. She felt Cook’s winning entry brought this field of possibilities together.
“And then for me did a further thing – that is, told me a story,” she said.
Cook, with Sydney-based artist Natalya Hughes, are exhibiting at the Caloundra Regional Gallery until February 26.
Mother is made up of 13 images of a woman in a deserted Australian landscape.
Deeth said Tennis, which forms a centrepiece for the exhibition, was a beautifully constructed and skilfully realised image.
“On an expressive level we can feel the emotion – the profound sense of loss and longing that is not only descriptive of a particular moment but which tell stories from the most personal to the most political, and connect to memories and histories that continue to haunt the present. A lot is held in that tiny floating tennis ball,” she said.
Caloundra Regional Gallery curator Hamish Sawyer saw deeply personal work in the Mother exhibition.
“The images speak openly to Australia’s Stolen Generation and evoke the powerful relationship between a mother and child,” he said.
Yet the power of Mother comes not from what the viewer takes from the images but from what they put or read into it – their stories. As Cook points out, it is not the story of the stolen generation – it is his story.
The Sunshine Coast has been Cook’s home for the past 28 years. At the age of 14 he was given a job by Clive and Lyn Lowe at a Caloundra photo lab. That proved to be the start of a career in photography.
Weekend work taking wedding photos proved a turning point. In 2007–08 he put some fashion-inspired shoots together using wedding dresses.
The next thing a publisher of a bridal magazine in New York was looking for enough images to fill six pages of the publication that went to 26 countries.
“In 2009, I decided to explore my identity through photography and created my first art project Through My Eyes,’’ he said.
It was Andrew Baker in Brisbane who advised him to spend a year working on the collection. That series received a great response and the next minute Cook had six gallery directors looking at his work.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” Cook said.
“It took a long time to realise my story is the story.’’
Born to a black father and white mother, Cook was adopted by a Hervey Bay family. He met his birth mother Val 17 years ago.
“My niece and nephew, who were adopted by my sister, are both of Thai origin. It is for this reason and many more that Mother can be viewed from a multitude of angles,” he said.
“My partnership with Andrew has given me the opportunity to continue to work on projects which interest me and also give me a better understanding of my indigenous identity.
“Having been adopted virtually from birth, this was an issue I was compelled to explore as I grew older.’’
In the Mother collection, the images look naturalistic yet they are highly composed.
The Mother images were determined by the layering of landscape, the models and the props – items that resonated with Cook’s life.
The dolls in hopscotch were out of the back cupboard. The bike was identical to the one he rode on the paper run when he was 12. The rainwater tank was what they swam in as children.
An initial concept of Mother was to have white babies following the female elders from a community in Central Australia through the bush. Cook liked the idea but it didn’t look right. So he brought his own story into it.
“My adoptive mother had strong views about Aboriginal rights and this gave me a good understanding of my ancestry and the reasons for my adoption,” Cook said.
“She explained how my biological mother had only been 16 years old when she became pregnant. Being a teenage single mother living in a small country town in the late 1960s, conservative views within the community meant she was expected to offer me up for adoption.
“I now have a very close relationship with my biological mother and she has lived next door to me for the past seven years.
“I create artwork about indigenous issues, past and present, and how the past relates to the present and virtually moulds the future.
“I look at the big picture. I am an Australian; I tell my stories to Australians of all races and also to those beyond our shores. I am part of the human race.
“I am part of Australia’s diverse multicultural population and I know my story echoes those of people like myself as well as those of different backgrounds. Aboriginal people are extremely diverse, our country’s history has ensured this – we are who we are.
“Circumstances from the past have made me who I am today and I’m here to share my story.’’
All images are subject to copyright. Contributed photos courtesy Michael Cook, Andrew Baker Gallery Brisbane and Dianne Tanzer plus This is No Fantasy Gallery Melbourne.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. It took a long time to realise my story is the story.
Michael Cook won first prize in the 2016 Sunshine Coast Art Prize for his entry, Tennis, from his Mother series.
Artist Michael Cook.