by Ingrid Howard
Now on display at Gallery 1930 in English Village is artist Wellon Bridgers’ collection of seven portraits, each one paired with a story of heartbreak and transformation.
Bridgers, who usually paints abstracts and landscapes, had to step out of her comfort zone to paint these portraits of the real people she met last year in the Republic of Congo.
“It has really stretched me,” she said. “Because (portraits are) so mathematical, and it’s so precise and not my typical style.”
Bridgers, a Mountain Brook resident, is the U.S. director for an orphan care organization in Congo called Mwana Villages. She thinks of herself as a “bridge builder,” also educating people in Birmingham about the Congolese people.
Bridgers found this organization during her and her husband Steven’s difficult journey with adoption.
The couple had always known they would want to adopt, and they were finally matched with twin boys. The Bridgers were told that the boys’ mother was a prostitute who didn’t know who the boys’ father was and that they didn’t have any siblings.
Toward the end of the process, they discovered that everything they had been told was a lie. The boys’ parents were married, and they had two teenage daughters as well as the boys.
“So that set us on a journey of really trying to understand what this world (of international adoption) is all about,” Bridgers said.
Instead of calling their near-adoption of the twin boys a “failed adoption,” Bridgers said she considers this a “successful family reunification.”
They set out to find an organization that emphasized family preservation and found Mwana Villages.
“We were pretty skeptical and jaded,” she said. “And for six months, we just watched. We watched how they made decisions.”
Bridgers said this organization had its ethics in check and aimed to reunite children with their families.
“It seems like that shouldn’t be so rare, but it is,” she said.
By October 2015 added two toddlers to their family: Daniel and Leila. About that same time, Bridgers began serving full time with Mwana Villages.
“Behind every child who could be considered an orphan, there is a story of a mother, most often, or extended family members, or father, or siblings that have really struggled,” she said. “So our model is to come alongside vulnerable women and to empower them and equip them to parent their children.”
A Family Affair
Daniel and Leila, who were born just six weeks apart, are both now 5 years old and set to start kindergarten in the fall.
The Bridgers also have a set of 9-year-old twins, Chloe and Fitz.
“Adding a child to a family is never easy,” Bridgers said. “Adding two toddlers at once when you have 5½-year-old twins … was intense.”
Each of her children have different personalities, she said. Chloe has the creative brain, writing with quirky and unique perspectives. Fitz is all boy, and he loves spending hours at the creek and fishing. Daniel is the extrovert; he can walk into any situation with confidence. And Leila is the spunky one. Bridgers said she is funny, sassy and girly.
“We’ve always joked that stubborn, strong women have stubborn, strong girls,” she said. “And I have got two heaps of personality in both of my girls.”
It’s been more than three years since Daniel and Leila’s adoption, and now the four children are all interconnected.
“They end up kind of dividing up,” Bridgers said. “Sometimes it will be the boys and the girls together. Sometimes it will be the older ones and the younger ones. Sometimes it will be three and one’s splitting off.”
Connecting Through Art
When Bridgers took a trip to visit Mwana last March, she asked some of the women and children if she could take their photos. These photos are the inspiration behind her series at Gallery 1930, titled “The Congo Series: Portraits of Mwana.”
“I had, in the back of my mind, this idea that I would love to be able to tie in these amazing, resilient, strong, beautiful Congolese people that I have gotten to know with my love and the art that I do,” she said.
She had a photo of Daniel that she loved and she used it as a guinea pig for her venture into portraiture. Her husband took the kids out one Saturday in the fall while she stayed in her studio to paint.
“I thought, I’m just gonna go for it,” she said. “I’m just gonna do it. So everybody came home, and I turned this canvas around, and they were all like, ‘It’s Daniel!’ And I thought, ‘Phew! At least you all recognize him.’”
She put his portrait in a fall art show to see how people would respond to figurative, abstract portraits. She marked it as not for sale.
“Beth Rooney, the gallery (representative), said (she) could have sold that portrait 10 times over,” she said. “People were interested and seemed to respond well to that style.”
She began on the portraits of the other Congolese people. All but two portraits have been sold, with 100 percent of the proceeds to be donated to help the people of Mwana.
To see more of Bridgers’ artwork, visit wellonart.com. To learn more about Mwana Villages, visit mwanavillages.org.