December 7, 2022

Ames High School Students Create Portraits of Ukrainian Refugee Children

This story was originally written for and printed in the Ames Tribune. Written by Phillip Sitter.

For six years, Ames High School students have created portraits to boost the spirits of children around the world. But the war in Ukraine has expanded the scale and scope of the students’ work, on display this month at the Ames Public Library.

The Wisconsin-based Memory Project was founded by Ben Schumaker in 2004 to provide portraits as special memories to children in orphanages. It has since expanded to youth around to world “facing many types of challenges,” according to his website.

“Together we are using art to reach a distant destination: a kinder world in which all youth see themselves in one another regardless of differences in their appearance, culture, religion, or circumstances,” Schumaker said.

Ames high school students have been participating since the 2017-18 school year and have created portraits for children in Poland, Syria, Malaysia, Cameroon and Sierra Leone.

Art teacher Lindsay Wede said students wanted to focus on Ukraine this year, given Russia’s invasion of the country and its ongoing war. Forty-nine students are participating — the most she’s had volunteer since its local inception. Many students come from her drawing, painting and printmaking classes.

Ames students portrayed Ukrainian children living in Poland as refugees. They range in age from 1 to 18 years old.

This year’s portraits will hang inside the entryway of the Ames Public Library, 515 Douglas Ave., until Dec. 20. They will be delivered to the Ukrainian children in January.

Ames students will get to see videos of at least some of the children as they receive their portraits.

How student artists describe creating the portraits: ‘They know someone’s thinking about them.’

Ames students fundraise to participate in the project by selling art club calendars and their artwork at the Beautiful Land Market.

The Memory Project asks artists pay about $15 per portrait, according to its website. It includes photography services and printing and mailing artists’ materials.

Students choose the child they want portray based on their pick of received photos. Wede said students often make their choice because they look similar to the child, have shared interests or are drawn to the composition of the photo.

Wede encourages students to use the precise proportions of the subject’s faces, but the portraits can stylistically range from abstract to impressionistic. Some students incorporate other elements, such as things the child said they like like tractors or Minecraft.

Wede said students can create portraits with any medium except charcoal.

Thomas Lehmkuhl, an Ames High School senior, said he was drawn to the picture of Nika, a 4-year-old whose self-description includes a love of dancing and singing and being cheerful, smart and kind.

Lehmkuhl said he was interested in the texture and patterns of Nika’s traditional embroidered shirt, as well as the wreath she wears in the photo.

He has participated in the Memory Project all four years of high school.

“It always surprises me how excited they are,” Lehmkuhl said of watching videos of children receiving their portraits.

Students are not allowed any other direct form of communication with their subjects beyond the recipient videos and their self-descriptions. The student artists also share a little bit about themselves on the back of the portraits, along with their traced handprints.

Lehmkuhl said if he could more directly communicate something, it would be a message of hope.

“They don’t deserve whatever instability or war they’ve witnessed,” he said.

Krisha Sta. Maria, a senior, said she would say to the Ukrainian she portrayed that “they’re not alone.”

“A lot of people are thinking about them and care about them,” she said.

Sta. Maria chose Anastasia, a 16-year-old whose favorite color is yellow, who loves volleyball and is confident, persistent and kind.

Sta. Maria is an immigrant to the U.S. from the Philippines and said she feels a special connection with the children from Ukraine. She’s participated in the Memory Project for three years and, like Lehmkuhl, said this year has been her favorite.

She appreciates seeing how happy the children are when they receive their portraits. “They know someone’s thinking about them,” Sta. Maria said.

In the past, student artists each got a link to the video, but this year Wede wants them to watch together. Wede also is considering connecting with a local nursing home to do a similar project with residents.