“Not of my flesh, nor of my bone, but still miraculously my own,” wrote Fleur Conkling Heyliger, a 1950s author of children’s books. For adopted children, materials like books are essential to helping adopted children understand what makes them stand apart from biological families. I remember as a child I had tons of these books. Some were illustrated, others had poetry. My mom would even DIY supplementary material on multi-colored cartolinas, drawing child-friendly diagrams connecting figures of both biological and adoptive people we know.
This is something artist Marina Cruz aims to do on various levels and scales—from books, educational initiatives, volunteering, and delicate, hyperrealistic paintings. An adoptive mother herself, Marina and her husband, world-acclaimed artist Rodel Tapaya, are partners in love art. Since their early days taking odd jobs like drawing caricatures in cafes, or face painting at children’s birthdays, both artists have experienced massive success in their solo careers.
Over the years, Cruz and Tapaya have faced discouragement in both their careers and personal lives, but have kept strong through a mix of collaboration and faith:
Cruz says, “They always warn you it cannot work, or that one practice will be sacrificed. Rodel, when he heard these stories, adamant siya kung may show, dapat sabay tayo. (He was adamant if there was a show, we had to do it together).” After they were married, the discouragement continued. “When we were finding it hard to conceive, siyempre nag-emote ako (I was dramatic). But Rodel is very open. Hindi naman siya diresto adoption, pero siya nag-think out of the box muna (He didn’t go straight to adoption, but he was the one to think out of the box first). If you really want to have children, why not adopt? He was the one who initiated it.” At present, Marina and Rodel have three children, two boys, aged 14, and 13, and a daughter who just turned 9.
The workspace of Marina Cruz and Rodel Tapaya is just a stone’s throw away from the Bulacan plant nurseries, and has a different feel from the usual cluttered artist’s studio. On the first floor are their archives, with folders organizing every artwork they have made in their decades-long career. A printed timeline of their exhibitions and awards snakes around the room. Upstairs, Marina Cruz’s space is immaculately clean, with high ceilings and ample light.
We sit on one of the couches. Despite her deeply-felt advocacy for adopted children, Marina Cruz speaks with an unsentimental and no-nonsense demeanor, as she tells us about her projects in the past, present, and future.
Hidden Links: “Ellipses” children and Marina Cruz paintings
While renowned globally for her deeply moving paintings of children’s dresses, Marina Cruz’s paintings aren’t as simple as imitations of fabric.
Cruz began to gain attention in her career for early paintings of her mother’s baptismal dress–a metaphor, she says, of how, “The aging of the dress is also the aging of the body.” Steadily, she built a body of work connected to ancestry and genealogy. As she became a mother herself, her paintings of children’s clothing have adapted naturally, with a new branch taking up adoption advocacy.
“We are trying to be attentive to underrepresented children close to my heart. Those who are in the waiting sphere. I call them ‘ellipses’. To be determined. Left hanging.”
Together with her family, Cruz goes on regular outreaches to orphanages. During her time spent with the children, Cruz has made insightful observations, like how in certain orphanages, things are shared in a “free for all” arrangement, which can be detrimental to the child. “These are children without a family and It’s important they have something they can hold on to as physical as a garment. Psychologically you have to have items you can touch.” To empower the children, Cruz plans to start a project creating bags personalized with the names of each child.
“I noticed those who collect and try to put importance on things are the ones who pay importance to their relationships.”
Some of her paintings hide subtle links between found fabric and adopted children, creating a visual metaphor that matches prospective adoptive parents with the child. On a grander scale, 2 or 3 years old in the Philippines is considered too old for domestic adoption. The only hope for children over 4 is to be adopted abroad. Cruz asserts the need for both media and government to publicize cases, especially those of foundlings.
How Tapaya-Cruz’s Artist Project isTorya Studios Breaks Stigmas
Besides big changes, some of the smallest changes happen with the word, or more specifically the written word found in books. IsTorya is a one-of-a-kind narrative design studio founded by Rodel Tapaya and Marina Cruz. Their motto is, “Meaningful play. Memorable stories. We are big believers that the best stories are the ones that teach.”
After starting by accident, the initiative has grown to offer books and educational games. I had a roaring time playing their historical Patandaan and Sangandaan Card Games. Also a small publisher, the first book of IsTorya was “Gasera Ng Paglingap”, a comic book that addresses problem of online sexual abuse.
While helping orphaned and adopted children understand where they are coming from, Cruz wants to raise awareness among people who have no link to adoption at all. She plans to go out of her comfort zone to spearhead a publication project herself, with the goal to represent those ‘ellipses’ children still waiting to be adopted. She wants to ask the question,
“How do we understand them from their point of view, without pitying them?”
“And then from there, ano pwede nating gawin? Kung hindi sila talaga mag-adapt (what can we do? If they really can’t adapt), we can work with groups that can train them to empower them. There will come a time when they’re teenagers and they’re so tired of everything. I’m thinking—their bruises can be powers.”
Coming from a family of teachers, Cruz says she has tried to dodge education all her life, yet she finds herself compelled to go back to teaching. She tells us about a student on the autism spectrum she taught one-on-one, and how he was able to create a portfolio and graduate from Emily Carr College in Canada. Beginning to veer onto the road less traveled, the artist hints that IsTorya has plans to build on its educational arm even further.
Marina Cruz as a Mother
As a parent, Cruz describes herself as relaxed, letting her children do their own projects and nurture their independence. She takes dance classes with her daughter, but keeps a hands-off approach, letting her do her hair and put on her ballet shoes. Sometimes she and her husband worry about being parents, especially on the subject of education. On consulting their mentor Bo Sanchez, he advised, “Even if you can send them to good schools, don’t worry. Just love them and be with them.”
Adoption is a non-issue, but for parents who choose to adopt, they will find that the rearing process is largely the same as biological families. She tells us after the “honeymoon” stage comes a few tests when the child finds out that there are rules, but to just hold on. She advises, “When you pursue something meaningful, it will give you a different kind of joy. You have to straighten up, provide for them. So most likely you’re going to produce some muscle with the extra weight of caring for another person.”
At present, Marina Cruz is doing more intimate works from prints to drawings. Recently she released phenomenal woodcut prints at Art in the Park. A veteran at preparing for exhibitions, she reveals she has an upcoming show towards the end of the year. Yet it is exciting to see her working beyond her meaningful artwork, to create projects that guide a wider audience to create new kinds of family where love knows no bounds.