Evangeline Alagaratnam never took an art class when she was growing up in her native Sri Lanka.
But when she and College of DuPage art professor Jennifer Hereth visit her hometown in northern Sri Lanka in June, their bags will be stuffed with art supplies, canvasses and 24 portraits of preschool children to donate to the local nursery school.
The portraits were done by COD students based on photographs of the children Alagaratnam had taken on a previous visit and some that were sent to her afterward. She explained that after Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war ended in 2009, she was finally able to revisit the northern part of the country where she grew up.
"When I visited Sri Lanka in 2012, I was shocked to see the children struggling to go to school. I visited a nursery (and) it was dilapidated. We renovated it and now 30 children are attending the nursery," she wrote in an email.
When Alagaratnam shared her experience with Hereth and her fellow students, Hereth decided to have her beginning and advanced painting classes create portraits of the children to give to the school.
It wasn't the first time Hereth has worked with students to bring a sense of social consciousness to their art. She is part of a group called IArtists that created paintings to give to people who lost their homes in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and has taken on numerous other service projects.
Hereth said the portraits were painted by COD students ranging in age from 18 to senior citizens and include both beginning and experienced art students.
"What I love about the portraits altogether (is) even though we all had the same school-type picture of the blue background, blue checkered uniform and each child's face, you can see how expressive each painting is of the artist's style and their emotional connection with the child," she said.
The COD students did more than paint the 8-by-10-inch portraits. They donated more than $1,200 for art supplies and shipping costs.
"When the students saw Evangeline's PowerPoint ... they were so moved," Hereth said. "Just spontaneously they gave."
Alagaratnam herself gave the money she earned from two art shows to renovate the nursery, a preschool for children ages 3 to 5. The nursery was built in honor of her great-grandfather, who converted to Christianity, became the first national pastor in the American Mission Church and started a school.
The nursery was occupied by the army during the Sri Lankan civil war and badly damaged.
In addition to paying for the renovations, Alagaratnam gave money for the pastor's wife in the church-run nursery to make the children's blue and white checkered uniforms. A pastor's daughter herself, Hereth said tucked in her luggage will be shawls her mother is knitting for the pastor and his wife.
But when Hereth suggested her COD students give the children different street clothes to wear in the portraits, she received a lesson in cultural differences. Alagaratnam explained how proud the children were of their uniforms.
"That's so North American," Hereth said of her original suggestion.
Alagaratnam's ancestral family home that is located in the same village, named Chavakachcheri, was destroyed in the war. She donated the land that was her dowry for an international school that is being built. The school will be named Hunt campus in honor of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents,
Alagaratnam, who immigrated to the United States with her husband, a doctor, in 1975, said she wanted to give to others out of the good fortune she has had. She raised three children of her own before she started taking classes off and on at COD 20 years ago. This month, she will graduate with an associate of fine arts degree.
Visiting Sri Lanka
After COD's graduation ceremonies on May 17, Hereth will leave May 19 for Xian, China, where she will teach for two weeks as part of a trip funded by the Illinois Consortium of International Studies.
Hereth then will go to Taiwan for a week to visit a COD student there before joining Alagaratnam in Sri Lanka June 7-22.
While there, she and Alagaratnam will teach art at the nursery, elementary and high school levels. Hereth said Alagaratnam has warned her that the children, some of whom have been orphaned by war, may have trouble sitting still.
"They are children who have only known war," Hereth said.
An island nation off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka is a country with a diverse population and rich history. Once known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka's strategic location made it of interest to European powers and it became part of the British Commonwealth.
Sri Lanka became a democracy in 1931 and achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948.
War broke out in 1983 because of ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese- and Tamil-speaking people, Alagaratnam said. She is from the Tamil people, who are the majority in the northern part of the country where she grew up, but a minority in the country as a whole.
The Sinhalese won a definitive victory in 2009 and since then there has been peace, she said.
Although the war ended five years ago, its effects are still very much present, Alagaratnam said. Eighty thousand people died as a result of the conflict, and many of the more educated of the population left Sri Lanka.
When Alagaratnam visited in 2013, she saw art students painting on glass and wood because they did not have canvasses. She went to the nation's largest city, Colombo, to purchase supplies for them.
The principal in one of the schools where they will teach in June is so excited about their visit, he will bring together children from other schools as well, she said.
"I know this is going to be a very rich trip," she said. "My heart goes out to these children."
Hereth said she has traveled widely, but this will be her first visit to Sri Lanka. She said she expects to serve as Alagaratnam's assistant during the visit and learn from the culture.
"I always feel so privileged when I get an opportunity to work in another culture," she said. "I feel I will learn something that will add to my personhood."
Anyone who wishes to make a tax-deductible donation toward bringing art to Sri Lanka may contact iartistsinfluence.org.