The faces of 20 children from Cameroon were the first thing visitors saw in November when they walked down the stairs at the Great Neck Public Library on Long Island, New York. The portraits, painted in vivid colors and as realistic as photos, looked straight at their viewers with shy smiles.
The super-lifelike paintings on exhibit at the library were a project from North Shore Hebrew Academy High School’s (NSHAHS) art classes in collaboration with the Memory Project, an organization that tasks art classes to paint portraits of children around the world. The students paint portraits of children who are in challenging situations, such as orphanages or refugee camps, in order to foster cultural understanding and kindness through art, and let the children know someone is thinking of them in their darkest hour.
“We create these memories for these children who essentially have nothing, and we send it to them as gifts,” explained NSHAHS art teacher Alexandra Dammacco. In the past, Mrs. Dammacco’s art class has painted portraits of children from Russia, Syria, and Ethiopia for the project.
The organization started in 2004 to bring joy to children living in orphanages, who often didn’t have any photos of themselves. In past years, they have expanded to children in all sorts of difficult situations, including survivors of natural and man-made disasters. The organization has worked with 300,000 youth in 55 countries. North Shore Hebrew Academy has been participating for the past several years.
“It was such a special chesed [kindness], because normally with chesed, you do something nice for someone else and you get that feeling that they’re thankful to you,” said Eliana Kovan, a NSHAHS junior who participated in the project last year and whose work is currently on display in the library.
“But in this instance, the kids didn’t know who the paintings came from and yet, we made them feel good. And as a result, we felt good!”
Mrs. Dammacco said the project helps her students connect to the wider world, beyond their own lives in New York. “When I introduce the project, I ask my students to think about all of the hardships that are going on in the world,” she said. “When the portraits arrive, we lay them out on the table, and I let them pick who they want to paint. It is then that they realize that they’re doing this incredible work for real people — and not just for a grade in school.”
Each of Mrs. Dammacco’s participating students works on a single portrait over the course of the unit. The Memory Project provides photos of the children, along with some brief biographical information and tidbits like their favorite color or what they hope to do when they grow up. At the end of the project, Mrs. Dammacco sends the finished portraits back to the organization, and later they are distributed to the children.
Mrs. Dammacco takes high-quality photographs of the painted portraits, and of students holding the portraits they’ve painted. Mrs. Dammacco said she takes a picture of the students holding their portraits because visitors to the exhibit often can’t believe high school students made the paintings themselves, since they are so lifelike.
The Memory Project works in 55 countries and is open to any school or individual that wants to participate. The organization is struggling to recruit participating artists since school art programs were mostly shut during Covid, said Mrs. Dammacco.
The project also teaches students skills for creating realistic portraits using acrylic paints, how different types of brushes create different strokes, and how to blend complementary colors to make shadows. Students learn about anatomy and how facial features are formed, starting from the skeletal structure to the layer of muscles to the skin.
But the lessons go beyond art techniques. The students engage in deeper discussions about skin tones, looking more intensely at someone’s face and seeing all the colors present. They focus on peering into their subjects’ eyes and finding ways to paint their hopes and joys and challenges.
“We learn how to mix and create the unique colors that are found in each of the skin tones,” said Mrs. Dammacco. “And that it’s not just about pouring brown paint because the skin looks brown. It’s brown with shades of orange and yellows and reds and even hues of purples mixed into it. The students learn how to create the unique colors that comprise all of us.”
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