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Adopted artist Michael Cook shares his tale of love and loss through his work

Life & Style Weekend - - WELCOME // INSIDE TODAY - BY Erle Levey

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.

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