The Memory Project

“So where is all of this art that a “retired” art teacher should be talking about or showing?” you ask.  And you would be correct in assuming a retired art teacher should be talking, at least a little bit, about art.  I certainly do need to showcase a little good art now and then.  However in order to do that I need to first share with you about a project that my students and I were involved with several years ago.  A project that not only provided an opportunity to “create” art but a project that went well beyond creating as it went to the very core of humankind—and that being the sense of self worth for an individual—and in this particular case, it was and is all about the self worth of a child.

The children I speak of are orphans.  Orphans from around the world.  One thing we may assume correctly about life in an orphanage is that the residents don’t have a great deal of material possessions—especially kids who are “moved around” a great deal—from, say, orphanage to orphanage.  The other correct assumption is that these children do not have parents or family members snapping pictures at each milestone or videoing each historical event in their young lives.  No one finds losing that first tooth terribly monumental in an orphanage.

Here in Western civilization, we, as parents, usually don’t ever put a camera down as we are constantly taking images of our children doing even the most mundane of activities.  The daily ritual of simply bathing and getting clean, for example, can lead to precious moments best captured for posterity in a video-allowing us to post to You Tube for the entire world an opportunity to laugh at and with, as well as enjoy our otherwise private family moments.  Not so in an orphanage.

Adults who spent their childhood in an orphanage can tell you that all they usually have  are but only a handful of memories—some good, some not so good.  There are not the yearly school portraits, the images of blowing out the candles on a cake at a birthday party, no image of the falls taken while learning to ride a bike, etc—no private moments snapped as mom or dad bends over and gives that last goodnight kiss.  It is almost as if orphans do not have a “history”.  What is history without documentation?

Ben Schumaker is a young man from Wisconsin.  I met Ben several years ago when, at school, I received a postcard in the mail about a “project”.  The Memory Project.  Intrigued, but busy, I left the postcard on my desk thinking that I should look into that when I had some time. The time came at the end of the school year when I was cleaning off my desk and once again found the postcard.  I went to the website, watched a couple of videos and liked what I saw.  But as it was the end of one school year, I would have to re-visit the idea come August.

Once the new school year was underway, I introduced the idea of The Memory Project to my kids, explaining all about the project.  I told my kids that we would start small.  I would take volunteers, anyone who was interested.  Let’s try 10 portraits first and see where we go from there.  Little did I know how much of an impact this little project would have on all of us.

I must, however, back up a tad and share with you more about Ben and what The Memory Project is all about.  Ben was a graduate student attending college in Wisconsin.  He needed to develop an idea or plan that he could work on as his graduate “thesis”.  The premise he decided to work with was that of children in Orphanages.   It dawned on Ben that these particular kids did not have pictures and or images of themselves marking their growing up.  In fact, children in Orphanages had very little to call their own.

Ben had the idea of traveling to various Orphanages around the world, take pictures of these kids and distribute the photos to school kids back home in the States.  Students here at home would then create art portraits based on the photographs only to have the portraits re-delivered to the orphans.  This gesture was to provide the orphans with a lasting treasure marking a particular time in their “growing up”.  A wonderful means of integrating art into the bigger picture of Life.

What started out, as a plan for a Graduate thesis, has now become a wonderful non-profit program and life changing adventure not only for Ben but for those of us who have been fortunate to be included.

Kodak donated the cameras.  The schools wishing to participate would be charged a nominal fee per portrait to help offset costs of shipping, processing, packaging, etc.  The way it actually works today when a teacher wishes to participate is that a number of portraits is decided upon by the participating teacher—in my case it was the students who I polled, getting a general commitment form them as to how many we would request.  A teacher can either contact Ben via his Organization’s website or can call him directly. Ben is very hands on, organized, passionate and super easy to work with.

My school issued a check that we in turn mailed to The Memory Project with the information form printed from the website.  It just so happened that at first I used the money from the classroom art account but as our volunteer numbers grew, our Principal took the money from his discretionary fund.

Once Ben receives the necessary paperwork for the participating school, he electronically sends the images of the orphans on a zip file to the teacher.  He follows up with the hard copy photos—usually 5×7 glossy photographs.  I found that my kids would also request that I print off a larger image in order to give them a “close up” of their “child”.

The country of origin of the orphans is a matter to timing.  At the time my students wanted to participate, Ben may have had a group of kids form India, or El Salvador.  If I request 10 or 30 images, he sends me that number of photos.  The art students are required to work on paper no larger then 9×12.  The paper must be flexible enough to allow rolling or even folding (yes art teachers, folding, a taboo yes, but a practical means of storage for a kid in an orphanage who may only have a small storage cubby for any and all personal effects).

Ben gives “must have” date for the completion of the art portraits.  This allows the teacher to properly pack the portraits, getting the package in the mail,  in turn allowing Ben time to un-pack, categorize and re-pack for personal delivery.  Ben hands delivers the images to the various orphanages.  The presentation is usually video taped and he graciously shares this with his various school partners.

When we first participated, I was a little hesitant as I wasn’t certain how seriously my kids would take the assignment.  As I had made this a voluntary project, I did not assign a grade to the project, working with them and juggling assignments around if necessary.  I only allowed my upper level kids to participate.  I did not discriminate based on anyone’s talent level.  Some kids are absolutely wonderful when working with the human face, others are not.  Any student, who wished to participate, despite talent level, was encouraged to do so.  I would help them as necessary with this project as I would with any other project.

They could paint, use color pencil, markers, mixed media or pastels as long as we could “seal” the work to prevent smearing or smudging.  The portraits were not to be backed or matted—remember the need for rolling or folding.  The backgrounds were left to the student’s imaginations.  They could change the clothing of the orphan as many were dressed in a uniform.  They could accent the hair, removing hats, or adding bows, etc…

I stressed the importance and seriousness of the project.  I told my kids the story of orphans not having the sorts of things that they, my students, took for granted.  I sat back and watched as my kids took ownership.

The day the photographs arrived was a day of great anticipation.  I scattered the pictures out on a table and had the kids come up to find which image “spoke” to them.  Other times I actually assigned them a picture.  One time the pack we received contained a number of images of special need kids; I was most interested to see how my kids would react.  Usually everyone gravitates to the “cute” but I was pleasantly surprised when they were just as eager to take the image of a child who perhaps had a very dirty face, who was over weight, or had Down’s syndrome or Cerebral Palsy.

I was teaching, at the time, a young man who had been adopted by a local family.  He had come from an orphanage in Russia.  He had only been in the US for two years, where he was now finding himself in a classroom working on a portrait for some other child in an orphanage somewhere else in the world—the irony of the moment was not lost on any of us.

My students began referring to the orphans as “theirs”—they were encouraged to jot a few words on the back of their art portrait.  Given safety issues and the protection of minors, as all involved on both sides of this venture were minors, no true personal information was to be included.  Also given the fact that the orphans may yearn for a lasting relationship, no “pen- pal” relationships could be established.  No false hopes could be given to these children.  My students were not to included anything about e-mail, face book, etc. as once again we are dealing with minors –also the orphans most likely have no or very limited access to technology.

There was a great deal of pride as well as angst involved in this project.  Other students, who had not originally, participated, for whatever reason, watched their classmates intently during the weeks of work.  There were struggles as my students wanted desperately to capture the personality of the child in the picture. There were many re-starts, frustration and even tears, as this became the most important of assignments.  And then in the end, there was even sadness as each image was completed and the due date neared.  My kids had formed a very real bond with “their” kids.

As I collected the portraits, I would take a photograph of my students holding the original and the completed portrait.  We mailed these back to Ben to be included with the portraits he was going to deliver.  I was often moved to tears reading the back of the portraits and of the comments and or advice my kids had written to “their” child.  My silly, often immature teenagers were now allowing a bit of brotherly or sisterly love to shine through.  Hope for a bright and happy future was a repeated comment.  If their child was Hispanic, they would work to write their comments in Spanish.  I marveled at their gestures of kindness.

This project was probably, out of my 30 years in education, the most important and most meaningful activity I, as well as my students were fortunate enough be involved in.  We started out with 10 portraits and worked our way up to 30 by my last year at school.  This was one of the hardest things to walk away from when I retired.

Kids giving to other kids….that’s magic.

If you have a minute—please click on the link to view The Memory Project up close and personal:

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