Memory Project: Painting portraits for Ghana children
Posted: February 2, 2013
The Winchester Star
Berryville — Mary McMillen is painting the face of a little girl she knows almost nothing about.
She knows a first name, which she can’t disclose, and that the girl lives at an orphanage in Ghana. But she also knows the shape of her face, the look in her eyes and the fact that she wears tiny earrings that remind McMillen of her grandmother.
“I don’t know why, but that made me pick her,” said McMillen, 60, of White Post.
The portrait is one of 20 that will be created at Opus Oaks Studio Fine Arts School — at 109 First St. in Berryville — as part of The Memory Project, Director Gale Bowman-Harlow said.
This is the third time the studio has participated in the international program, designed to have art students create portraits for children and teens around the world who have been neglected, orphaned or disadvantaged, she said.
“It is a way to use art as a communication between people around the world,” she said. “It is not only great for the orphan, but it is also very inspiring for the people who do these portraits.”
Bowman-Harlow created a class around the project, which meets from 5 to 6:30 p.m. each Thursday through March 21. Spaces are open in the class until Thursday for artists of all levels.
The cost of the class is $140, which includes all materials, but it will be pro-rated to the time when the student joins the class.
In the class, students have picked a portrait out of the 20 that Opus Oaks ordered, and Bowman-Harlow takes them through the process of creating a realistic portrait of the child. Because of low participation so far, some people will probably do more than one, she said.
Using the photograph as inspiration, students start with a sketch and move on to creating a painting on paper, Bowman-Harlow said. It must be lightweight because many children can only hang their picture with a piece of tape.
The Memory Project was developed by Ben Schumaker when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, according to its website.
He volunteered in Guatemala in 2003 and learned that orphans there had few or no personal belongings. He started the project in 2004 to “help the kids collect special items that would contribute to their sense of heritage.”
Students who participated in the local program the two previous years — painting children’s portraits from El Salvador and Haiti — have loved the outcome and knowing how it could affect a child, Bowman-Harlow said.
A few of the students even wrote about the experience for their college entrance essay.
“If you look at somebody’s face and paint it, you wonder about that person and who they are,” she said. “It can become very endearing.”
The moment Miranda Herring, 17, the daughter of Claudia and Stacy Herring of Winchester, learned about the project, she knew she had to be part of it.
For children who don’t have photos of themselves, to have a hand-painted portrait from someone who doesn’t even know them “has to be special for them,” said Miranda, who is participating for the first time.
“It is good to know we can bring a smile to their faces that is not already there,” she said.
The children don’t have much exposure to art and very few possessions of their own, so hopefully this will give them a new “treasure,” said Gwen Casey-Higgins, 63, of Berryville.
On top of that joy, the experience for the artist is wonderful, she said. Although normally a landscape painter, she wanted to help and liked the idea of trying portrait work.
“It should be an interesting challenge,” said Casey-Higgins, an Opus Oaks board member.
Students start with a black and white study in pencil before they move on to paint because the portrait must be very accurate, Bowman-Harlow said.
In one class, she showed the students how to mix paints to create different shades for skin tones. She demonstrated a technique of dabbing the blended paint on a transparency on top of the photo of the child so they could check the color for accuracy.
They hope the children can look at the finished portraits and feel that it really looks like them and is a part of them, “rather that just a foreigner looking at them,” McMillen said.
Spaces are available in The Memory Project class at the Opus Oaks Studio Fine Arts School at 109 First St. in Berryville through Thursday. The painters meet from 5 to 6:30 p.m. each Thursday through March 21. The cost of the class will be pro-rated to the date the student joins. For additional information, call 540-955-4226 or visit opusoaks.org.
— Contact Laura McFarland at firstname.lastname@example.org