Community School students connect with another world through art
More often than not, we connect with the world’s disadvantaged people through a headline and reach out with a check. But for a dozen high school students in Ben McLoughlin’s AP art class at Crested Butte Community School, two weeks this semester were spent confronting poverty face to face.
With colored pencils, paper and a photograph of a child living in an orphanage in Ghana, the students set about creating portraits—outlining facial features and using color to give their subjects depth. Sometimes a smile.
“For this one we chose colored pencil because they hadn’t done a project in [that medium]. So we worked on skin tone, layering, and building up value, dark to light and light to dark,” McLoughlin says. “That was the main thrust of it for us. But I think the students had a good time thinking about these kids. It did give the project a real significance, a real connection to something, even though [the students] aren’t communicating with them directly.”
But the portraits are an important part of the students’ overall grade and are just one of 24 pieces of art included in a final portfolio each student must complete and have evaluated for the class.
The portraits are part of The Memory Project, the brainchild of founder Ben Schumaker, who saw that children at the Guatemalan orphanage where he volunteered had few possessions of their own, if any at all. He wanted to give them something personal they could keep and see themselves through someone else’s eyes.
Today, The Memory Project works alongside non-governmental aide organizations to offer children a sense of personal pride and ownership, in 34 countries around the world through the creation of more than 50,000 individual portraits. Through a contribution from the Community School’s PTA, the local AP art class participated.
The Memory Project teams up with organizations that work directly with “neglected, orphaned, or disadvantaged” children and teenagers around the world to provide photographs for art students to work from, according to the group’s website, memoryproject.org.
“I think when we hung them up in the hall was the best part,” McLoughlin says. “Seeing people’s reactions was really special.” Thinking about the meaning behind the portraits made tears well up in one teacher’s eyes; another said the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The reaction among students was similar, McLoughlin said.
This week, the portraits will go back to Ghana to the students they depict.
For the students who put pencil to paper, the portraits were a technical challenge or an opportunity to see a familiar medium in a new way. Student Monica Olesen associated colored pencils with “purple dragons,” not people or portraits.
The project was also a chance to connect with someone whose life is inconceivably different from one’s own and see art for the impact it can have on people.
“We couldn’t see their personality through the picture so you just made them who you thought they would be. Drawing these kids, we’ve never met them and didn’t know anything about them, so we’re learning about them and putting ourselves in their place,” sophomore student Anna Fenerty says. “You’re showing what you think their experiences are through their face.”
For junior Cristo Church it was equally important that the portraits would be going back to the people they depicted. And when their work is shipped off to the west coast of Africa, it will go beyond its place in a portfolio and take on a whole new significance. It will be the most personal of possessions for someone who might otherwise have no possessions at all.