Focusing on the art of compassion

Stephanie Griffin squeezed pea-sized globs of acrylic paint onto a sheet of paper.

She swirled her brush in a dish of water, dabbed it in orange-red paint and began creating. Making small brush strokes, Griffin touched up the nose on the portrait of a child.


"It's hard figuring out what colors to use," the 17-year-old Bel Air High School senior said. "I don't want to mess up. The children we're sending these portraits to don't have anything else, so I want it to be perfect."

Griffin is one of more than 40 Bel Air High students participating in a project in which students paint portraits of orphans in developing countries and send them to the children, many of whom have no keepsakes. The students are working on portraits for children in Uganda.


"This project transports the students out of their little world of Bel Air and into this global space," said art teacher Karen Ballard. "For them, it's a great awakening."

The program began about two years ago and is overseen by a nonprofit organization founded by a Wisconsin man after his encounter with a Guatemalan man who was raised in an orphanage and had no memories or photographs of his parents.

The program comprises the portrait project, called Memory Portraits, and a book-making project called Books of Hope.

The portrait project is open to advanced high school and college-level art students, who receive photographs of an orphan and draw or paint a portrait of the child. The students attach photographs of themselves and handwritten letters to the back of the portrait before mailing them to the children.

Books of Hope, which is open to all ages, entails creating an illustrated book for the orphans to read.

Ballard's class began working on the portraits about nine weeks ago. Many of the students say they have come to view the project as much more than schoolwork and have thrown themselves into the endeavor.

"These little orphans have so little," said Anne Tanenbaum. "The portrait will mean a lot to them. So it has to be just right."

After carefully considering color schemes, Tanenbaum settled for bright colors.


"I want my portrait to be original," Tanenbaum said. "I am hoping the bright colors will make him happy, because his face looks so sad in the picture."

Some students, such as Shelley Smith and the three classmates she sits with, weren't initially enthusiastic about the project.

"None of us at my table wanted to do this when Miss Ballard told us about it," she said. "But once we got a picture of a child and began working on a portrait for them, we got very attached to the children we were painting. It's not just a grade - it's for someone else."

James Knapp, 16, said he hopes his creation has an effect on the child he's painting.

"I hope when they get our portraits, that the children feel hope that somewhere, someone cares about them and they are trying to do something to help them," Knapp said.

Another group of students is taking part in Books of Hope to benefit children in Russia and Mexico. When the students learned about how the orphans lived, they embraced the project, said Sandra LeBarron, the Advanced Placement studio art and crafts teacher at the school who is leading the project.


"When my students heard that there is still slavery among children their ages living in the world today, they were shocked," she said. "I think it makes them more aware of their rights. We watched some videos of the children and they touched an emotional chord in my students."

The students see the project as a cultural exchange of sorts.

"This program is a great way for us to learn about the orphans and for them to learn about us," said Kristin Nohe, a 16-year-old senior. "I hope they find the book inspirational and maybe they will think that they can do great things, too."

The portraits will be displayed at Huckleberry's Coffee & Tea shop in Abingdon this month and mailed to the orphanage in December. The books will be read at an as-yet-unscheduled open-mike night.