by DeeGee Lester Director of Education The Parthenon
“The [Memory Project] experience made me step back and deconstruct my own personal ideas about possessions and what makes a gift legitimate. I came to realize that the most valuable thing anyone can give or invest is their time.”
—Noah Sjoblom, NSA project participant
To have personal possessions—things we accumulate and toss aside, or items that we treasure throughout our lives—seems to be the normal human experience. But many children scattered across the globe have no personal possessions, nothing they can call their own.
In 2004, while volunteering in Guatemala, University of Wisconsin student Ben Schumaker was touched by the lives and stories of orphan children who had no possessions of their own, no tangible memories. He created the Memory Project, a non-profit that invites art teachers and their students to connect with these children and build the joy of ownership for them through the creation of personal portraits based on photographs. Each year, the project focuses on a different country.
Marti Profitt-Streuli’s upper-level art students recently completed creation of portraits for orphans halfway around the world. “I’ve worked with the program for eight years, first at Hillsboro and now with my students at NSA. This year is particularly poignant as my students create portraits for Syrian refugees. It surprises me how invested the kids get. This is not for a grade. They volunteer to participate, and 100% turn in their portraits. They stare into the eyes of a child halfway around the world and connect. Many write notes to attach to the back of the piece.”
“Israa, this 12-year-old girl who is an orphan, almost brought me to tears,” says Jocelyn Buford. “I wish to meet her and say stay strong; there are people out there who care for you.”
The connection of one life to another is powerful and grows with each brushstroke as the portrait unfolds before them. Each year, the $15 fee for participation in the creative process appears to be no issue for the students.
“They have a few guidelines but can pick any medium for the portrait,” says Profitt-Streuli. “There’s a lot of freedom of expression. We only ask that each child be able to recognize themselves.” The completion of the pieces is timed to coordinate with Schumaker’s travels back to the region for delivery of the precious works of art. After delivery, the classroom of artists receives pictures and a video of grateful children receiving their treasured portraits.
Artist Cher Von Tiedemann recalls juggling school and college applications and says, “In the middle of it all, I just looked over at that half-done portrait and was reminded of all the things I didn’t have to deal with. I did not have to deal with bombings and tear gas. I didn’t have to see the people I love die or watch the infrastructure of my country toppling all around me.” Aware of the blessings of education and family, Von Tiedemann adds, “She doesn’t have that, and I know that a watercolor portrait is not going to change that. But my hope is when she looks at this portrait she can see the strength I tried to paint in her. I hope she can look back at what I drew and know I saw this great power to survive.”
For more information, visit memoryproject.org.