Over the past two months, studio and advanced art students at Mattituck High School have been creating portraits of children on the other side of the world.The 35 portraits feature children between ages 4 and 16 from Syria and Myanmar as part of The Memory Project, a nonprofit that invites artists to create portraits of youths who have faced unimaginable challenges including violence, war and poverty.
“Such a small gesture can bring a smile to their face,” said senior Christina Tomao who used colored pencils and acrylic paint to depict Sara, 9, and Sidra, of Syria.
In the coming weeks, staff from the Memory Project will deliver the portraits to each child and produce a video of their reactions that students at Mattituck are expecting in May.
Ben Schumaker founded the organization in 2004 at the University of Wisconsin. During a month working in an orphanage in Guatemala, he learned that the children lacked childhood mementos and keepsakes that are common in the United States. The portraits created through his project serve as tangible memories that make children feel important while promoting “international friendship and solidarity,” according to its website.
Mattituck students were sent 8×10 photographs of each child, along with their name, age and favorite color to inspire each drawing. In addition to the completed portraits, students attached a photo of themselves to send back along with a simple greeting in English or for Syrian children, in Arabic.
Art teacher Dina Rose first learned of the project during a conference for the New York State Art Teachers Association last fall. “I thought it was great for students of this age to see students of a similar age and what they’re going through,” Ms. Rose said from her art classroom in an interview last Thursday. “The students really embraced it.”
As they sketched and colored their faces, the students also learned about factors impacting the children’s lives. In Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya people is a growing refugee crisis. Nearly 700,000 have fled religious persecution in the predominantly Buddhist country. Members of the religious group have been denied citizenship and were excluded from the 2014 census.
“They’re being discriminated against for their beliefs,” explained senior art student Madison Schmidt.
In Syria, a brutal civil war has displaced millions of people — nearly half of which are children. “I knew a little bit about it,” Christina said, but now she’s more aware of the impacts of war on children.
The students also gained some insight into cultural nuances. “A few of the children in Myanmar had paint on their faces,” Madison recalled. After some research, they found a likely answer. “We actually found out that it’s a way to prevent sunburn.”
Madison and her classmate, fellow senior Rachel Janis worked on portraits of Alamsha, 12, and Faysal, 4, of Myanmar. Faysal wrote that his favorite color was black; so Rachel had to think creatively about which medium to use. Eventually, she settled on an intricately shaded graphite drawing against a black and white tropical palm background made with Sharpie markers.
The project allowed students to fine tune their portraiture skills. “It was difficult to realistically portray the features of their faces,” Madison said. “But it’s a good way to bring some happiness to their lives in a time when it’s really hard to find happiness.”
The $15 charge for each portrait was funded through a $500 grant from the Mattituck PTSA, Ms. Rose said. This was the first time Mattituck students participated in the project and high school principal Shawn Petretti hopes to make it a tradition.
When Ms. Rose originally approached him about the project, Mr. Petretti agreed.
“When I was looking at the portraits of these children, that’s when the gravity of this project hit me,” he said. “I’m always amazed at the artwork that our students produce, but there’s something about a portrait. You see the emotion and depth of what this project is about.”
He sees the project as a way for students in Mattituck to make a connection with someone different. “Our students have now sat and studied a physical image of someone in another culture with a different background, a far more challenging background than they had. They’re not just watching a news story, they now have a connection with someone that’s living there, through art,” he said.
Photo caption: Portraits for the memory project by Kaitlyn Driscoll and Amber Rochon. (Courtesy photo)