by Jessica Carreras
At first glance, Thomas McMillen-Oakley’s photographs won’t yield much response: They’re photos of kids, sometimes with adults, sometimes playing outdoors with each other. Big deal. But a closer look at the Jackson-based artist’s work – namely, a purposely blurred piece that shows him reading to his two kids – might startle you. The book isn’t “The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist.” It’s a collection of works by notorious gay erotica photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Don’t sic the American Family Association on McMillen-Oakley and his partner just yet: He never actually showed their adopted daughter and son those photos. But it sure is fun to make social conservatives think that he has, hence the idea behind the artist’s photography collection, “The Dangerous Lives of Children,” showing as part of the “Social Realism 2010” exhibition Aug. 7-Sept. 18 at Plymouth’s Art & Ideas Gallery.
“There’s so much fear propagated by the conservatives and by the religious right that gays shouldn’t adopt because we’re going to warp the kids somehow,” McMillen-Oakley says of his work. “But yet, if you come to our house and sit down and have dinner with us, we are the most normal family in the world. (These photos are) playing with that idea and really giving the religious right something to think about.
“I’m feeding into their fears.”
It’s bold subject matter for the father of two and professor of studio art at Jackson Community College. He lives and teaches in a relatively conservative part of Michigan, but insists that the local community’s reaction to his family and his work is nothing but supportive.
“There are very vocal anti-gay people (in Jackson) who show up whenever the civil rights ordinance tries to get passed,” McMillen-Oakley admits. “But we’ve had a very accepting experience here with the adoption. The fears of ‘Is this town too conservative for this?’ are, to me, unfounded. We’ve never been questioned; we’ve never been harassed.”
Likewise, he finds that art galleries are supportive of his work. McMillen-Oakley has exhibited at The Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, and Art & Ideas Director Mike Tolinski was equally thrilled to include the artist’s work.
The Plymouth-based gallery is less than a year old, but McMillen-Oakley praises them for their already stellar commitment to diversity. “I don’t want to be ‘the gay artist,’ because that smacks of tokenism, but I’m glad that they’re letting other voices be heard,” he says. “They’re open to a diverse roster of artists, and I like that.”
And equally committed to challenging gallery-goers with their “Social Realism” exhibition, which includes two artists in addition to McMillen-Oakley, Julia DeClerck of Metamora and Shaqe Kalaj of Livonia. Kalaj, the gallery’s artist-in-residence and curator of the show, sought photographers whose work aimed to expose compelling social truths. “But in our case,” she adds, “we were also looking for humor and irony depicted about our current situation in the U.S. and southeast Michigan.”
McMillen-Oakley fit the bill perfectly with a collection of photos that focus on children as subjects, with all adults either absent from view, or blurred out. It’s a commentary both on what’s “normal” in family life, and the lack of biological parents that many children face – including his son.
“Our son was taken away from his parents because of abuse and … we adopted him from foster care. So for Eli, the adults that brought him into the world are indeed absent,” McMillen-Oakley shares. “He looks at us as the parents now. We’re Daddy and Papa, and that’s what he knows.”
But through both his photographic work and his parenting, he tries to show that all types of parents can help nurture a child. “I think that’s one of the big reasons that kids do get in trouble sometimes and why life can be dangerous is because they don’t have an adult to help them make wise decisions,” he explains. “They don’t have an adult to be their Jiminy Cricket and say, ‘Maybe you should think twice about doing that.'”
The message of McMillen-Oakley’s work often has serious undertones. On the surface, however, it’s all about showing kids having fun – another value he tries to teach his own children. “One of the things I want to instill in my kids is a sense of play and a sense of wonder, and I think a lot of these pictures reflect that,” he says. “When kids are being creative and when they’re letting their guards down, that’s when the fun happens.”
Social Realism 2010
Opening reception 6-10 p.m. Aug. 7
Runs Aug. 7-Sept. 18