The Memory Project creates keepsakes for children who don’t have so much as a family photo. The Memory Project recruits artists — mostly high school art students — to paint portraits of orphans from around the world. The portraits are then given to the children, in many cases becoming one of their few possessions.
Ben Schumaker started the Memory Project in 2004 as a social work grad student at the University of Wisconsin. It was featured on Katie Couric’s first CBS Evening News broadcast and quickly became a full time job. Since then more than 25,000 portraits have been painted and delivered to children in more than 30 countries.
What gave you the idea to start this project?
Ben Schumaker: I was volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala in 2003 when a man there pointed out that the kids didn’t have many personal keepsakes to contribute to their sense of self-identity. I had always enjoyed doing portraits in high school, so I thought it could be pretty powerful to get art students involved in making portraits for the kids. From that starting point, it was just a matter of taking one step at a time. Invite a few high schools to make portraits, invite an orphanage to receive portraits, get a few more high schools, another orphanage, and so on.
Why portraits? Can art change the world in a way some other form of aid can’t?
In this case I feel we are using art to add a personal touch that food and medicine can’t. Most of the kids who receive the portraits actually have most of their “basic needs” covered—they have a roof over the heads and are going to school. So for them the portraits are meant simply to make their childhoods a little more personal, a little more colorful. Something they can hang in their lockers. The portraits are meant to be special gifts in the same category as birthday presents, a day at the beach or other things they may remember fondly when looking back at their childhoods.