The Memory Project gives high school art students across the country opportunity to give back using their talents. Each student receives a picture of a child from underprivileged countries around the world. The student then paints the picture of the child and sends it back to them.
The idea of The Memory Project came to creator Ben Schumaker in 2003 while he was volunteering in Guatemala. Schumaker wanted to give the children self-portraits to keep and cherish for the rest of their lives. Knowing they didn’t have many photographic memories, he wanted to give them something from their childhood that they could keep. The Memory Project officially came to life.
The Memory Project has been part of the Shaler Area art curriculum for eight years now. The idea was brought to Mr. David Boyles, who teaches Studio Art 1-3 and AP Art, by one of his fellow colleagues. After hearing of it, Boyles did further research and contacted Ben Schumaker to become involved.
“This project is completely voluntary. Usually students in Studio Art 3 and AP Art are the ones who participate, but there have been exceptional students who choose to volunteer and do this who don’t even take an art class,” Boyles said.
There is not a required medium for the students to use, but they tend to use acrylic paint, oil paint or colored pencils to make the portraits as realistic as possible. Although the students were assigned to paint a portrait based off the photographs they received, they were still permitted to add special touches to each painting. The child’s favorite color was included with his/her picture so that the artist could incorporate it somehow whether it was the color of the background or even the color of their shirt.
“The project was difficult because it was hard to match the child’s features exactly, but in the end it was rewarding. My girl’s favorite color was red so I made her shirt red to make it a little more special,” junior Claire Schreiber said.
The students spend up to about three weeks on the project, but are not allowed to form a connection with their child through things such as writing letters or sending things other than the portrait. Similarly, the student doing the piece is only permitted to include his/her first name so that the child receiving the painting can not try to get in contact to ask for donations.
This year’s edition of The Memory Project is slightly different for students at Shaler Area. The students usually receive photographs from orphans in third world countries that have included Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Honduras. This year the students are making portraits of refugees. A few years ago, the students had Ugandan refugees to make portraits of, but this year it’s Syrian refugees living in Jordan.
“The topic of Syrian refugees is all over the news and is always being televised. The students are more aware of what’s going on which makes them that much more engaged in the project,” said Boyles.
This is also an opportunity for charity at Shaler Area High School. The National Art Honor Society pays $15 for each picture they receive which goes right back to The Memory Project to cover the costs of shipping, printing, delivery and supplies along with donations that go to the children.
“This also lets them know someone somewhere cares about them, which is really special. It might be the only personal item they really have with the exception to some of the clothes and food they have. Really, it gives them something that they’ll be able to hold on to forever,” Boyles said.
Throughout the duration of the project, the students start to see as a very emotional and humbling experience.
“Having the chance to paint a child from a third world country makes me realize how lucky I really am. I get so excited for this project each year because something so little makes these kids really happy and that’s what it’s all about,” senior Kelly Lazaro, said.
The Memory Project records videos of each child receiving their portrait, then creates a montage of the different video clips. The montages are sent out to the people who created the portraits. Along with the slideshow, each child takes a picture with their portrait which is sent, too.
“By far, my favorite thing about this is seeing the students’ faces watching the video of the child receiving the portraits they created. It opens their eyes and gives them an opportunity to view the world outside of Shaler and shows what impact something like this can have on someone,” Boyles said.
Although the outcomes are usually exciting and happy, some children never receive a portrait. Once while creating portraits for an orphanage in Africa, some children were abducted by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and probably turned into child soldiers. The children may never receive their portraits, but the orphanage holds on to them if they ever get the chance to return.
The reactions to the paintings seem to vary by age. According to The Memory Project website, “Young children are most noticeably thrilled to receive them. They hold their portraits proudly and show them to everyone around. Teenagers usually prefer to receive their portraits privately in a place where their peers are not crowded around to see. They often hang their portraits in their lockers and share them with close friends.”
“I think it’s a great thing to do and I’m happy we continue to do it each year. It turned out great this year and it was nice to see how many students participated,” says Lazaro. “It was a big part of my high school art career and I’m excited to hear back from the organization to see how excited my girl was about her portrait.”