Oakdale High School art students have recently made a difference in the lives of orphans halfway around the world. Earlier this year, the students drew portraits from photographs of orphans in Uganda and sent them to the children as keepsakes.
OHS art teacher Nancy Kern became involved with the program called the Memory Project last year when she received an e-mail asking for participation. She thought it was intriguing because she had lived in Nicaragua for three years, just prior to coming to OHS, and knew about the orphanages there. She said she felt a connection to the project.
Memory Project Director Ben Schumaker reported in his recent e-mail to participants that the kids in Uganda had received the portraits, which were delivered to them at school, classroom by classroom. He also sent along photos of the orphans holding their new portraits.
“No doubt it was one of the most exciting days of the year,” he said. “The adults described it as a festival. By the end of the delivery the entire school yard was crowded with kids running around to show the portraits to their friends — an explosion of colorful images.”
“One of my students saw the e-mail of her student holding her drawing and she started crying,” Kern said.
“…one student said it was the most meaningful drawing she has ever done,” she added. “It made her nervous because she wanted it to turn out nice. Seeing the orphans holding their drawings was really rewarding.”
Kern teamed up with fellow OHS art teacher Omar Salinas to participate. Each teacher had 10 student volunteers who drew portraits. The students used different mediums to do the portraits, which ranged from colored pencil, to graphite, to pastels.
Salinas said that at first, there were a few students who were reluctant, not that they didn’t want to do the project but they didn’t want to disappoint the children.
“They were aware that they were orphans and they wanted to perform at their best,” he said. “I had a couple of students do multiple portraits. In fact, one student did three different versions because they were so worried about the orphan’s reactions.”
OHS art student Rogelia Aguayo participated for the second year and drew his portrait using the graphite pencil medium. Last year he did two portraits of Honduran orphans using prisma color pencils for one and pastel for the other.
“I usually start from the middle of the face, the ‘T’ (of nose and eyes),” he said. “I usually start on the right eye and nose and then move to the left. I work my way out from the middle to the outside.”
Aguayo said that he’s been drawing since he was five years old and that he mostly draws what’s in his head but does portraits when someone asks. He also enjoys drawing cartoons. He said that the Memory Project has taught him patience and to try his best because the portraits are for orphans. He said that in the past he would draw quickly just to hurry and get done. However, with the portrait, he spent two weeks getting it right.
“I really took my time on it,” Aguayo said. “I felt great helping somebody. I would like to meet the person.”
He credits both Kern and Salinas with teaching him a lot about art.
Student Heather Turner made two portraits using the pastel medium this year, her first year to participate in the project.
“It took me about two to three weeks for each portrait,” she said. “I always start with the eyes because I think they’re the most important part of the picture. Then I go from light to dark. The ears are the hardest to draw in pastel. I touch up with lights after I’m done, that way it shows reflections.”
Kern reported that the cost was $20 per student to cover materials and some other costs, which was provided by the OHS school site council. Kern also covered some costs. She and Salinas hope to continue participating in the project with their students.
“Hopefully, in the next few years we will be able to increase the number of portraits we can do,” Salinas said. “That all depends on the students and the help we get from outside sources to fund the project.”
Schumaker noted that the project creates about 5,000 portraits each year. He added that this year, however, it looks like they will reach 5,500, and next year they hope to bump up the number to 6,000.
He said that he started the project in the fall of 2004 while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin.
“Shortly before that I had been volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala,” he recalled. “An adult there got my attention when he pointed out that the kids didn’t have many personal keepsakes – very few photos, mementos, or any other personal items to contribute to their sense of self identity. I had always enjoyed doing portraits in high school, so I thought it could be pretty powerful to get art students involved in making portraits for the kids.”
That became the starting point, he said, and then it was just a matter of taking one step at a time.
“I invited a few high schools to make portraits, invited an orphanage to receive portraits, got a few more high schools involved, then another orphanage, and so on,” Schumaker said. “The project grew thanks to art teachers telling other teachers about it. People also wrote articles about it, made presentations at art education conferences… There are many people who deserve credit for helping the project become what it is today.”