Being Here: Artist Adapts to Life, Adopts Son

Joe McGill's life and art seem to be dominated by happenstance. In the wiry, blue-eyed Dubliner's work, a Kit-Kat bar found on the street becomes a self-portrait; a torn piece of raw wool found on barbed wire becomes a totem for the crucifixion.

But McGill, whose art has been exhibited in Europe and New York, doesn't believe in pure chance.

"Art is like life," said McGill, 39. "There has to be some meaning to it all. No matter how abstract, an artist has to be able to explain his art. Just as people look for meaning in their lives, you have to search for why things happen."

McGill's sojourn in Russia seems to have the same happenstance quality as his art. Coming here for his wife Maureen's work, he found a son.

In 1992, Maureen McGill got a job in the finance department at Irish House. Six months later, Joe followed from Dublin. At Christmastime a year later, heeding the Irish ambassador's encouragement to give something back to Russia, McGill and some of his compatriots searched for an orphanage to help.

They settled on Internat 24, which needed children's shoes. The shoe project led to barbecues, dances and fund-raisers, including a soccer game, with the Irish ambassador as goalie.

It was during the game that Joe met Valery, the 15-year-old boy the McGills are now about to adopt. Joe saw Valery on the sideline playing chess, and he sat down to join in. He said their friendship was cemented when Valery went AWOL from school to see McGill off to Ireland, and Joe kept Valery from getting in trouble for it.

When Joe got back, he started a long and frustrating adoption process. The McGills, who do not speak Russian, have spent the past year filing papers, being asked for bribes and waiting, McGill said. Finally, this month, they were told they could adopt Valery.

"Kids are treated like commodities here," McGill said. "A lot of people are making bucks off of them."

For Valery, the idea of moving to Ireland is almost as daunting as Russia's adoption system. Although he has no living family, Valery said he is sad to be leaving friends. But after a trip to Dublin last year he came back wearing black jeans, flannel shirts and docksiders, and raving about the computers, the McDonalds and the movies.

The McGills admit that school will be a problem for Valery, a smart boy who wants to become a lawyer, but whose English will probably keep him behind his age group.

"For a while we know he's going to be a novelty," McGill said. "We just hope he doesn't become a permanent novelty."

The McGills will also have to adapt to becoming the parents of a teen-ager.

"It's a learning process," Maureen McGill said. "We've never had any other children, so we really can't say what the difference will be. It's probably the same as it would be with any other child. Except you don't have to clean nappies."

Having survived Russia's adoption system, McGill is now contemplating its art world. While he's had many offers to show his work, he has refused, because he worries that once his works are displayed publicly the authorities might deem them ineligible for export.

The worries haven't gotten the best of McGill. If he never has an art show, he says, he'll be disappointed but won't feel his time in Moscow was wasted. "I know we ended up in Russia to meet Valery," McGill said. "I found my purpose for coming to Russia."