Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Shaler Art Students Creating Portraits for Children around the World

Jan 01, 2018 02:04PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Through drawings, paintings, portraiture and more, artists use their skills to communicate ideas that are far larger than the canvases they create. This is especially true of The Memory Project, an art program that utilizes the talents of American art students to create portraits to give to disadvantaged children around the world.

Shaler Area High School students have been participating in the project for nine years, and this year plan to create 50 portraits to share with children in Syria, Haiti and Mexico. 

“I think it’s a really cool and important opportunity,” explained senior Claire Schreiber, president of the National Art Honor Society, who is working on six portraits for children in Syria. “Many of these children are impoverished and don’t have any possessions of their own; it’s nice for them to have something created just for them—to know that someone out there cares.”

The Memory Project was started in 2004 as a way for art teachers and their students to do something for children around the world who have faced major challenges, including violence, disasters, extreme poverty, neglect and the loss of parents. According to their website, the goal of the program is “to help the children feel valued and important, to know that many people care about their well-being, and to act as meaningful pieces of personal history in the future.”

To date, The Memory Project has created more than 100,000 portraits for children in 43 countries. 

Art students in David Boyles’ Art 3 and AP Studio Art courses and Jeff Frank’s Art 2 classes are taking part in the project. The students create the portraits in addition to their regular work, and have about three weeks to complete the project.

Students are provided with a digital photo of each child along with a full-color print in order to create the 8 x 10 portraits. “You can choose how you want to make it; I use oil paint because it’s my favorite medium,” said Schreiber.

Once the portraits are completed, they are hand-carried to the recipients, and a video is sent to the artists so that they can see how their work was received. “The video is awesome; it’s the cutest thing ever,” said Schreiber. “It’s really nice to know that you’ve been able to help someone who maybe didn’t know how much they matter. They are in such unfortunate situations, and it’s nice to be able to shed a little light into their lives.”

“These portraits are something that the children can carry with them that gives them a sense of ownership, identity and memory,” said Boyles. “It becomes cherished because it has depth; it is more than a material item—it is our students relating to them. It’s valued.” 

In addition to knowing that they have given someone a priceless gift, the art students benefit in other ways. “Our classes do research to find out more about the country and the culture,” said Boyles. “In many cases, they are creating some of their best work, which they then hand over to an unknown source to deliver to someone in need. The charitable aspect of this is really important; the experience is both educationally and spiritually profound.”

One of the biggest challenges of the project is raising the funds needed to get the portraits to their recipients. It costs $15 to ship each portrait, which means that the students and school needed to come up with $750 for the 50 portraits that they plan to send this year. 

“We do fundraising through the National Honor Society; no students pay for this themselves,” said Boyles. “We hold gallery shows, create ‘slate paintings’ to sell during the holiday season, do face-painting and a whole plethora of things. It’s a collective effort, and we just keep chipping away at it.”

The project does accept donations, and people are welcome to sponsor students’ artwork. 

“It’s a big goal this year; double what we’ve done before,” said Boyles. “But we believe that our students have the capacity to take on a challenge like this. They were all extremely interested and wanted to do something that went beyond themselves and this locality.

“It’s really an incredible opportunity to see beyond our cultural norms and to understand how different things are in other cultures and to understand where they are coming from,” he added. “It’s a way of creating and building relationships without even using language, and of tapping into the spiritual and existential capacity of students as creators.”

Anyone who would like to support the students and The Memory Project are welcome to sponsor the cost of a portrait. Each portrait costs $15, and you can send a tax-deductible donation by writing a check to Shaler Area High School with “Memory Project” in the memo line or participate in their new Go Fund Me page at www.gf.me/u/fq9ki8. To learn more, visit www.memoryproject.org.