Art from the heart: Project connected Oregon students with Nigerian orphans – Oregon Observer

Oregon High School art students in Ms. Heidi Coutre’s class were recently able to combine growing their drawing skills with a humanitarian service project.
As part of a charitable effort called The Memory Project, 35 student artists created portraits from photographs of orphaned children in Northern Nigeria.
“The Memory Project is a youth arts organization that promotes intercultural understanding and kindness between children around the world,” it’s website states, with a mission of “creating a kinder world through art.”
On the back of each drawing, the student artists included their own photos, signed their first names, traced their hands, and wrote “I happily made this for you.”
The portraits will be delivered to the Nigerian children this April as a memory of their childhood.
The Observer reached out to Ms. Coutre to learn more about this art project, which provided a connection between Oregon students and Nigerian orphans despite over 6,000 miles separating them.
Was this the first time participating in this project?
This is the second time I have set up this type of opportunity for my OHS students. The first was in 2018, and the students drew portraits of children in Haiti facing significant challenges after Hurricane Mathew and earlier earthquakes. We had talked about it becoming a biannual project, but the pandemic happened. Truthfully though, I was hoping this project would help us reconnect with children beyond our borders since travel has now become so limited. We need to still get creative to get out of our bubble.
How did you become aware of this initiative?
Ben Schumaker, the founder of Memory Project, is very good about reaching out to local art teachers letting us know about this project. I received a simple postcard about the Memory project years back and knew I wanted to be a part of it, and help facilitate that connection for my students as well.
Did everyone use the same media for creating their portrait, or could they choose their own medium?
This year I first offered the opportunity to my Art One students who have portrait drawing specifically in their curriculum. I wanted to have them have this deeper care and meaning in their piece as they applied the skills they were learning about proportion, shading, and achieving realism. I did not want to force it though: one because it actually costs $15 dollars, and two because I wanted the desire to be authentic. Half of my Art One students (a little over 20 kids) accepted the challenge. That group then used graphite to make the portraits and could add other materials in the background. I also opened it up to my Portfolio students and they were able to pick the materials they wanted to use.
Who are the 35 artists? What class was it? How were they selected or how could they volunteer?
The majority of the students were from Art One, so mostly freshmen (about two-thirds of the total), a few sophomores, and then some juniors. The Portfolio kids are mostly seniors (which was maybe a little less than one-third of the group).
How long did it take to create the illustrations?
Most students took about two weeks, but I allowed longer so as to not rush them. I wanted the experience to be enjoyable.
When did you create these pictures, when were they mailed out?
We got them near the end of the first semester in November. They will then be returned to the Memory Project at the beginning of March. Ben, the Founder, has connections that hand-deliver the portraits to each child at their school. They make a video of the Nigerians receiving them that we will later be able to see. I am hoping the video will be back to us before the end of the school year in June. It really is a touching moment to see the sheer joy on the kids’ faces as they receive their one-of-a-kind portrait! We do it for the kids, but it does feel good to know you had a hand in that moment and that feel-good feeling.
Was this part of a particular lesson plan or unit? Was there more taught about Nigeria, or African art, in connection with this project?
We really focused on how to draw portraits, but we did get a video on Nigeria that helped build understanding and support and why we were making the portraits for these kids. The Memory Project motto is – ‘Creating a kinder world through art’. I wanted the kids to create art to show support and encouragement for children in northern Nigeria who are overcoming many challenges to receive an education. We talked about celebrating strength and resilience and helping these kids feel valued, knowing that there are other kids out there who care about their well-being and want to provide them with a handmade personalized representation of their childhood. The short video inspired our students and introduced them to the children and a little bit about what their country looks like. Nigeria is so diverse with 500 different languages, 250 ethnic groups with varied customs, religions, and traditions. This diversity brings immense beauty but also has allowed the country to be overrun by violence, kidnapping, bombing, and land disputes. But the kids we drew inspire us as well as they fight for their education despite the destruction and violence and are hopeful for a better future.
Was there any sort of process for pairing an artist with an orphan or was it randomly assigned?
They were randomly assigned. Some I tried to pair based on interests in sports or a future career, but otherwise at random.
Will you participate again? If so, how often?
We would like to make it biannual to get a larger group of kids involved. And it gets a little tricky with the cost, so last time I got a grant, this time I opened it up to those who moved to cover the cost and we funded some with interest but were not able to cover the cost at this time.
If not The Memory Project in particular, had you done any sort of charitable art project before?
Not on this international level, but our Art Program also supports resource conservation, as in animal and environmental conservation through some shows like the Wisconsin Duck Stamp Competition, and we try to get kids out into nature to take photos and explore their world beyond just inside the classroom.
Were these matted, framed or laminated in any way?
Nope, they need to be light to be packaged and sent to Nigeria. They are 9”x12” so they slid into a clear plastic sleeve for protection.
Is there any further correspondence between the Nigerian youths and the artists, or is it sort of just a one-time, one-way thing?
This is a one-time thing, but our students do attach a picture of themselves, trace their hand print for a friendly touch and write I happily made this for you and I hope you enjoy it. As well as signing their first name and age.
Was there any information about the youths given or did you just get their photograph?
Yes, we get to know their first name, age, favorite color, what they want to be when they grow up and three descriptive words about their personality, and in return, our students attach a small photo of them, their first name, and age (as mentioned previously).
Was it expensive to mail to Nigeria?
The Memory Project is a non-profit organization and the $15 dollars goes towards any mailing or travel expenses, and a small donation to their school.
What was rewarding about this experience?
To see the students care so much about making a quality piece that really looks like the child who will receive it. I mean so much to them that they can make this piece. I love the pride they take in seeing their piece finished and how well it turned out when they see it in the gallery. I think sometimes they surprise themselves with how well it all goes when they slow down, pay attention to all of the detail, and put together all of the art concepts we have talked about in class. Also, it serves as a catalyst for creating art that goes far beyond the classroom walls and affects the lives of kids across the world. Helping to teach and show that art can bridge the gap between our students and kids across the globe facing hardship to promote empathy and social consciousness.
Was anything challenging about this experience?
Getting the true likeness is a definite challenge, and then adding value shading or mixing believable skin colors – but our students rise to the challenge and persevere – for the greater good of the cause. They were all really committed and no one gave up!
How can art be a force for good in the world or raise social awareness?
Making art for others can feel great.
It can even help us understand ourselves a little better in the process. We can understand the importance of arts and culture and the exploration of expression. We can use this as a platform in problem-solving and weaving a tapestry of support across barriers like language and distance. Sending a message of kindness across the world. While it is important to fix issues on a large scale, we can also perform small acts of kindness that can really make a difference when they all add up. These small acts also increase awareness of our own behaviors.
Reporter Neal Patten can be reached at npatten@wisconsinmediagroup.com
Learn more about The Memory Project at memoryproject.org
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