The Memory Project is a nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin and run by Ben Schumaker out of his apartment. When Ben was in college in 2004, he was shocked to learn how many children are living in orphanages around the world, orphaned by war, disease, famine, neglect. What could he, an art student do? Given that children in such situations often have few personal keepsakes, Ben decided he could do portraits, hopefully to provide the children with a special memory of their youth, to honor their heritage and identity, and to help them build a positive self-image.
The Memory Project grew and grew from Ben’s initial idea, and now more than 30,000 portraits have been produced by art students here, and Ben has delivered them around the world.
Malden Sketch Group member Sharon Santillo contacted Ben and asked if adult artists could participate, Ben said he would welcome Sketch Group’s participation and told of a large group of orphans from Honduras that he hoped to deliver portraits to in the summer. Ben explained that Honduras has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Honduran families have been especially hit hard by the violence of drug trafficking, and so many children are in orphanages.
When Santillo approached Sketch Group members about participating, the response was an immediate and enthusiastic yes from 23 members. Steve Spang of Carlisle e-mailed, “I taught school in Honduras at the end of the sixties when it was one of the safest countries in Central America. I have fond memories of my experiences there, and would like to reconnect with the country and it's people this way, drawing a Honduran niño or niña.
Sketch group funds covered the $15/portrait donation and when the photos arrived from the Memory Project in late February, it was like Christmas. Each participating member of Sketch Group selected one photo to paint, draw, stitch in fabric, or whatever was their medium of choice. The children in the photos ranged in age from 2 through teens.
When she first saw the photos, Ginger Greenblatt of Burlington said, “Each of these children is so beautiful. It would be a pleasure to paint any one of them.”
During the 3 months Sketch group members worked on the portraits, the artists felt personally touched by this experience. “This was a wonderful project for the sketch group, and I truly felt a connection with my girl Andy, as I studied her shining little face and expression, and tried to do her justice with a likeness.” said Judy Greulich of Wakefield.
Kathy Spang of Burlington said, “This made me imagine being an orphan, what it must feel like. To think that someone studied my face for hours, and then we exchanged faces when we mailed our own photo along with the portrait.”
Lucia Jenkins of Melrose said, [the Memory Project] “is a priceless gift; the opportunity to connect and give beyond our small world of Malden, Ma, USA. As I painted my portrait of this teen-age girl and studied her face, I began imagining in her some of the same feelings I saw in my own daughter, and I felt very connected.”
Sara Gravante also of Melrose concurred. “My children shared this experience with me. As they saw the portrait develop, they reflected on their own lives.”
Landscape watercolorist Rod Peterson of Malden struggled with portraiture but took on the challenge for these children and found it to be very enjoyable. Luke Volpe of Melrose related that he and his wife fell in love with the little girl in the photo. Dennis McQuillen of North Reading agreed, “You become attached.”
Cambia Davis of Medford made a very personal connection, calling the child in the photo, “my orphan”.
“The orphanage must be doing a lot of good for this child to look so happy.”
Bill Chishom of Somerville stated,”Artists are always being asked to donate. But this was fun. It felt great on both ends as an artist and as a gift.”
Also from Somerville, Aaron Ellerbee, said “it’s nice to be able to do something good with what you have beyond food and clothing. With these portraits, we can contribute something to these children’s lives.”
Portraits were due back on June 1. When all gathered in May with finished portraits to make the package for mailing back to Ben, everyone was in speechless awe. And when Ben received the them, this was his response. “These portraits are magnificent! Drop dead beautiful! I am so incredibly impressed by what your art group has accomplished here.”
The day came in September when the return photos arrived of each orphan holding his/her portrait. And all those good feelings came rushing back for everyone. If you, the art teachers in your child’s school district, or anyone you would like to pass this story onto is interested in being part of The Memory Project, just contact Ben Schumaker at http://www.memoryproject.org. He will be happy to hear from you. He is currently looking for artists to do portraits of orphans from Viet Nam.
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