Upon finishing drawing the portraits, 9th-grader Annabel Henegar knew she may have just helped make a significant difference in the lives of children very far away.
“This project seems small but it actually has a big impact when you realize that most of these kids have never actually seen a picture of themselves,” she said of the recipients in Bolivia. “We take photos for granted, but a single portrait means so much to them because they don’t have photos they can look at, let alone pictures of themselves.”
Annabel’s two portraits were among the nearly 70 that Providence Day students once again created for the Memory Project, a nonprofit organization that invites art classes to create portraits for youths around the world who have faced substantial challenges, such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents and extreme poverty.
The concept is simple: the portraits help the children feel valued and important and serve as meaningful pieces of personal history in the future. The art students get to creatively practice kindness and global awareness.
“We got to give them gifts that were personal and unique for each of the children, and hopefully show that a lot of effort had been put into them,” said Annabel.
“I hope that when the recipients receive their portraits, they will feel as though someone really cares about them, especially since a lot of the kids we drew are neglected and don’t receive the attention they deserve,” said 9th-grader Emily Orland. “I hope it gives them something to smile about and makes them feel very special.”
According to the organization’s website, the endeavor has created more than 80,000 portraits for children in 35 countries since the Memory Project was founded in 2004.
That was Upper and Middle School art teacher Andrea Downs’ first year teaching, and she has been involved with the Memory Project since then.
“The fact that my students could make children across the globe smile by simply taking the time and utilizing their drawing skills to create portraits as a keepsake was an immediate connection,” she said.
When she started teaching at Providence Day in 2009, Downs was passionate about giving her students the opportunity to be involved with the Memory Project.
“Every child deserves to feel valued and important,” she said. “I always hope that all of my students will practice, develop and improve their art skills and techniques, but perhaps more importantly, I want them to practice being good, caring people and make our world a better place.”
In the seven years Downs’ Upper School Art I students have participated, they have created portraits for children in more than a dozen countries — places such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ghana, India, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Thailand.
The current 67 recipients all live in Bolivia, and they received portraits in April from the Art I students and, for the first time this year, Downs’ Advanced Middle School art students.
The Memory Project acquires photos of children and teens from organizations operating residential homes, schools and care centers in various countries annually. It then forwards full-color prints and digital copies to participating art classes. Art teachers work with students to create portraits for each child, and the Memory Project captures the delivery on video to share with the artists.
The Middle School art students worked in pairs to each take two children’s faces from the photographs and combine them with drawn or painted backgrounds. Upper School artists worked in pairs to recreate — draw, paint — the faces from the photographs.
“My students are practicing at becoming socially responsible and empathetic young people who will hopefully go out and change the world for the better,” said Downs. “They are also developing their collaboration and observational drawing skills.”
Pairing students on the portraits fosters teamwork and creativity, said Downs, as they discover how to work together to produce the best work possible.
“It forces them to make all decisions together — about how to start, how to add color, where to add shading, what to do in the background, etc. It is truly a collaborative process,” she said. “This focused collaboration toward a common goal is moving to see every time it happens.”
Annabel worked on two portraits with 9th-grader Jack Moore.
“The process was really cool because we literally split each photograph in half, so each of us only drew half of a face,” said Annabel. “When we finished each half, we put them together and adjusted each side so that they fit together and matched.”
The endeavor took all the teams a few weeks to complete both portraits, mostly because the student-artists wanted to ensure the quality of their pieces.
“Working on this project was very different from any other project I’ve done in Art I,” said Emily, who created her two pieces with 9th-grader Marc Sturisky.
“I wanted the children I drew to feel special upon receiving their portraits, so I definitely felt more pressure to do my absolute best work on the Memory Project.”
She started over four times on her side of one of the portraits.
“I wanted the finished product to be perfect, to resemble the child as closely as possible and really make her smile upon receiving it,” she Emily.
Downs hopes to one day take part in a portrait delivery, ideally with a few of her art students.
The project makes an obvious difference in the lives of the children, but also in the lives of the artists, said Annabel.
“We take a look at the big picture and realize that we take so much for granted,” she said. “Projects like these make us appreciate the little things in life.”
Though not everyone speaks the same language, said Emily, everyone can comprehend and appreciate artwork.
“Art can make a difference in the world by connecting people from all over, just like how the Memory Project served as a connection between the students at PDS and the children in Bolivia,” she said.
“Projects like these make me feel as though my artwork is meaningful, and I would love it if I could always do projects that make a difference in other people’s lives,” said Emily.
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