THS students create portraits for Afghan orphans,
THS art club students send handmade portraits to Afghan orphans
Imagine someone smiling more than 7,000 miles away because of art you make especially for them. Texas High School art club members recently experienced this transcontinental artistic connection with young orphans in Afghanistan.
Participating in The Memory Project, THS art club artists this past year received photos of selected children, and with those photos as a guide they painted and drew realistic portraits to give to the children.
Once finished here, Texas High School’s art club then joined other groups with this special art delivery by sending 15 portraits to The Memory Project, a charitable nonprofit art organization that, according to its website, strives to “cultivate global kindness” by bringing art to these children.
They’re children who face a barrage of incomprehensible challenges like poverty and violence. Only recently did the THS students see the joy and wonder their artistic gift inspired in those children.
The Memory Project sent a video that shows portraits being delivered. THS art teacher Shea Phillips said art club students can see at least three of their portraits in the footage, which shows dozens of children welcoming the art with both curiosity and enthusiasm.
A video message explains how the portraits were brought to the children, who live in a place that’s been ravaged by armed conflict for many years.
“We tried to deliver them in late June, but the travel routes were too dangerous. So like the children, your portraits waited and waited until finally, in late August, we used a small plane to fly them over the violence below and into the children’s hands,” reads the Memory Project message in the video.
The video shows Afghan children flashing smiles and bubbling with laughter as the portraits are distributed.
“Thanks to your contributions, we were able to give $4,000 to support their education in addition to the 2,600 portraits you made just for them. Thank you for all your hard work,” the video continues.
Getting involved with this project is just one of several ways the art club works to be community conscious, an outgrowth of thinking globally and acting locally, said Phillips, who first worked
with The Memory Project while studying at University of North Texas.
“We started thinking about ways that we could help the community through art community service,” Phillips said. They painted pictures for the Friendship Center, held a donation drive for the battered women’s shelter and made art for an animal shelter.
Then she discussed a new possibility, The Memory Project, with art club president Victoria Van, thinking on an international scale.
“They work with orphanages in Third World countries or just impoverished areas,” Phillips said. “They work in several different regions: Pakistan, Syria, South America, even in parts of Russia, as well.” These orphans don’t have worldly possessions. “They’ve got nothing.”
It was Victoria’s idea to make art for orphans in Afghanistan, specifically. The Memory Project sent full-color photos of the children to the art club.
“The idea is to create just the best, most realistic portrait that you can possibly do,” Phillips said. When sending it back, the artist attaches his or her own photo and includes some personal information. A fee covers the delivery costs because many of the children live in remote areas.
“Then they basically hand deliver these portraits back to the children and in the video that’s been on social media it kind of shows their reaction, which is priceless and made it all worth it,” Phillips said, noting the club is already thinking about the next round of portraits to make. “I think it’s going to be an annual thing now.”
Her students enjoyed doing it, particularly seeing it all come full circle and “seeing it received with love,” the art teacher said. Victoria wanted the art club to branch out and help folks internationally.
“I decided to go with Afghanistan because I always see on the news in the media how that country is portrayed as war-torn and really bad, and you don’t ever see the good things over there,” Victoria said. The innocent children inspired her.
“I wanted to bring them some happiness in their lives that they don’t usually get every day,” Victoria said, noting that once they started the student artists became invested in the project. They only had the briefest of informational backgrounds about each orphan.
“We got their name and their favorite color and that’s all we knew about them, but we were still able to kind of get emotionally attached,” Victoria said.
They could incorporate that favorite color, and for each portrait, they wanted to make the most of it. Victoria herself made five portraits (“It was worth it,” she says), striving to stay true to the photos sent. She aimed for realism. Victoria’s orphan ages ranged from around 3 years old to teens.
“I wanted to kind of capture their facial expression the way it was. I wasn’t trying to alter it or anything, just kind of keep that pure essence of what they had,” Victoria said. It’s more personal if it’s a portrait, she observes. She used colored pencils because it was the best way to capture their skin tones correctly and be more creative with the background.
“We had mainly colored pencil, paint and just regular graphite pencil,” Phillips said. Students worked with the medium where they had the most confidence. Most members gridded their portraits, hand drawing square by square.
“Capturing the likeness of the child was very, very important to us,” Phillips said. They didn’t want to take too much creative license. “Our Western attitudes on art may not line up with the children in Afghanistan, so we didn’t want to do purple people or surrealist portraits or anything like that,” she said.
The portraits were made on paper so the children could be mobile with them. After all, they may not have their own space where it can hang. They may move.
But the art is special to the children, something to keep safe and secure.
“Here in America we have all these materialistic things like phones and tablets and things like that little children just attach to, but the children over there they don’t have those types of materials or opportunities to get those things. So even something so personalized like a portrait of themselves is something they’re able to keep on their own and that can’t really be taken away from them,” Victoria said.
Phillips was particularly impressed with The Memory Project because the nonprofit group is easy to work with and has a great support team, she explained.
“We got personal, one-onone contact with somebody that was representative of The Memory Project. They made it really easy,” she said. They also understand the financial struggles of a Title I school, she said. The cost can be a burden, she said, because of the $15-per-portrait delivery fee donation. Here again, the students were the ones who gave.
“The children that participated paid it themselves,” Phillips said.
As for Victoria, what does she hope these orphans receive via the art sent by a stranger thousands of miles away?
“I hope that they know there’s somebody always thinking about them,” Victoria said. Despite their situation, someone won’t forget about them, someone will keep tabs on how they’re doing.
And the project also gave the artists something. What they received was an emotional link.
“I felt like it humanized us a lot because we think about ourselves a lot and our own art and stuff like that, but this was something that was voluntary and we did it for someone else and there’s no materialistic gain out of it,” Victoria said.
The teacher agrees. It’s about making a difference in someone’s life through art.
“I just think it’s important to give children an opportunity to show empathy to other people and to build communities within our schools. This project really brought us all together,” Phillips said.
“Towards a purpose, it was bigger than ourselves. My hope is that they kind of have this different connection to the world and perhaps they view things a little differently.”
■ Texas High School student Victoria Van poses with one of the portraits she made depicting an orphan in Afghanistan. THS art club members worked with The Memory Project to deliver 15 portraits to orphans.
■ Art club president Victoria Van, left, and Texas High School art teacher Shea Phillips pose for a portrait. The Texas High School art club recently participated in The Memory Project, a project of sending portraits to Afghan orphans.