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Portraits of goodwill

Art students create drawings of children in Cameroon

Northview — Northview High School seniors Hannah Vierheilig and Erin Waldron have created plenty of art, even of themselves. In Erin’s case it’s a self-portrait she did in charcoal; and Hannah created a few out of fabric.

Both say knowing a few of their original portraits are displayed in the homes of children thousands of miles away is particularly fulfilling. 

Erin and Hannah are just two of Tricia Erickson’s AP art students who participated in The Memory Project this year. 

“It’s just a really fun way to explore materials and technique in terms of the art, but also a really cool experience to be a part of,” Erin said.

Keepsakes by Skilled Artists

The U.S.-based nonprofit was created in 2004 by a then-University of Wisconsin graduate student, who invites skilled youth artists to draw portraits of children in other countries as keepsakes, and to build international goodwill. To date, more than 280,000 portraits have been delivered to some 55 countries.

The organization also hosts a K-12 art exchange between the U.S. and countries that are very culturally different such as Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria.

This year, Northview High students received photographs of refugee children in Cameroon. When they were completed a few months later, the original portraits — in charcoal, colored pencil, watercolor, pen and ink, digital and collage — were delivered to Cameroon, and prints were displayed in the high school near the cafeteria and the central office. 

Northview students also received a video of the portraits being delivered to children in Cameroon.

“So many of them don’t have any portraits or photographs of themselves, just based on their location and the resources there,” Erin explained. “This is a representation of themselves they can have for their own.”

Recalled Hannah: “All the kids looked so happy and excited to get (their portraits).” 

Erin’s older sister, Elle, participated in The Memory Project when she was a student at Northview. Erin first drew portraits for the project last year.

The most challenging part of the project this year, she said, also could be considered a compliment to the skills of Northview artists.

Said Hannah: “The pictures they sent us this year were kind of difficult to go off of, because some were a little blurry and some, the students had a paper or something covering part of their face. I just tried to focus on capturing their likenesses and trying to make it so they were happy to receive it.”

From left: seniors Cora Lee Kanady, Hannah Vierheilig and Bonus Phosaeng and junior Eva Frymire participated in the Memory Project this year

A Tradition Continues

Erickson said Northview already had been participating when she came to the high school in 2007.

Not only does it give students more practice honing portraiture skills, perspective and proportion, facial features and completing art on a strict deadline, “This project is such a meaningful thing they are doing,” she said.

“All year long they are making art for themselves and their portfolio. In a sense that means they go from art being a hobby to kind of a job. This lets them just use their talents to do something kind for someone else.”

Erickson said she explores with her students the countries their subjects live in or are from. “It’s just a humbling experience to be reminded just how much we have, and brings them back to why they love making art.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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