Through portraits, Costa Mesa students and Ukrainian refugees share a connection
Costa Mesa High and Middle School art teacher Keli Marchbank cries every year when she watches the video sent to her and her students from the Memory Project, an organization that aims to create “a kinder world through art.”
For at least a decade, Marchbank and her students have been contributing to the nonprofit, which encourages young artists to create portraits of children facing neglect, abuse, loss or other hardships internationally. Artwork from her classroom has made its rounds to countries including India, Syria and Mexico and, this year, roughly 30 portraits made their way to Ukraine, which recently observed the grim hallmark of entering its second year of war with Russia.
While Marchbank can’t recall how she got involved with the project, she said she continues to do it because she feels the project, which was started by Ben Schumaker in 2004, helps give a sense of identity to displaced children.
“If someone cares enough to look at their face, draw it and give it to them as a memento because some of them don’t really have a form of or relating to their identification, it’s a way of showing that these kids have value,” Marchbank said. “It’s nice to contribute to that. Though some of these kids might not have a family or an environment where they’re loved, having something like this is pretty powerful.”
Costa Mesa freshman Allie Trask painted a portrait of a girl who was shown in the video receiving the gifted work of art.
“That’s your kid. It’s this sense of connection and being able to identify that connection,” Marchbank said.
Marchbank said classrooms participating in the Memory Project are given their choice of countries at the start of the school year and are provided photos of the children relatively early in the fall semester. What mediums the students work in are up to them, though all of the portraits must be finished by December to be shipped off to their respective countries.
Trask, who is in Marchbank’s Art II class, said this was not only the first year she had participated in the Memory Project but also her first time drawing a person’s portrait.
“I was looking through the kids in the pages and I chose this girl, [Polina]. She was older, kind of our age and that was my way of relating to her,” Trask said. “I wanted her to feel special because I knew if someone drew a portrait of me from across the world, that would make me feel special. I did pencil for her and I did watercolor in the background. She had this expression that was serious, but almost like a model look, and I wanted to keep that composure.”
Trask said that seeing her smile in the video gave her “butterflies” because it felt fulfilling to be able to make someone feel that way with something she made.
Senior and AP Drawing Portfolio student Dharma Andreas said she chose her portrait subject because of her curly hair, which she said inspired her to do not just one but three separate portraits of the girl: one in charcoal, one in acrylic paints and one in colored pencil. Three versions, she said, in which she saw the girl’s beauty.
“I actually drew her as Mother Nature — Gaia — so, I drew vines growing from her hair with her favorite color, mint, in the background,” Andreas said.
“I find happiness in my art and I like to center myself with my own art,” Andreas continued. “If I want to calm down or smile or have feelings to express, I tend to put them down on paper. When I got the chance to draw somebody and bring them a self-portrait of themselves when they may not be going through the best times, I kind of just thought about how happy it would make me feel, and I tried to put my best effort into making it worth their time to see it and really enjoy it.”
Andreas said seeing the people in the video touched her and that she felt like the portrait forged a true connection between her and people on the other side of the world that she may never meet in her life.
Fnu Anu, also a senior in Art II, said she’s participated in the project several years now, though this year was the first time she’d seen the video, as previous years weren’t able to be recorded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The best thing you can do is make someone feel like they’re seen, especially if they’re struggling,” Anu said. “They are being heard, and art is another way of doing the same thing because it contains so much emotions and one of the quotes [in the video] that I still remember is that this parent being like, ‘When we get a new home, we are going to put this portrait up.’ It just kind of touched me. My portrait is going to stay with them as a memory ... of their struggle ... that they overcame.
“I feel great; I feel empowered to do more of such work and even being more involved in my community because there’s a huge impact that you can make.”
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