St. Viator students paint portraits for Syrian refugee children

 
Updated 10/17/2017 6:15 AM
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  • St. Viator art student Fiona Conneely works on a portrait of a Syrian refugee child.

      St. Viator art student Fiona Conneely works on a portrait of a Syrian refugee child. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Billy Mueller, an art student at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, works on a portrait. The class was creating portraits of Syrian refugee children for the Memory Project, a charitable nonprofit organization that invites art teachers and their students to create and donate portraits to youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents, violence, and extreme poverty.

      Billy Mueller, an art student at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, works on a portrait. The class was creating portraits of Syrian refugee children for the Memory Project, a charitable nonprofit organization that invites art teachers and their students to create and donate portraits to youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges such as neglect, abuse, loss of parents, violence, and extreme poverty. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Fiona Conneely, left, and Sarah McDermott work on their Memory Project portraits in art class at St. Viator.

      Fiona Conneely, left, and Sarah McDermott work on their Memory Project portraits in art class at St. Viator. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

A humanitarian project aimed at brightening the lives of Syrian refugee children is wrapping up at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights -- and it has nothing to do with raising money.

Instead, intermediate art students are working to create a keepsake for these refugee children, something which they might never get otherwise: their portraits.

"Some of these kids haven't seen themselves in a mirror," says senior Fiona Conneely of Arlington Heights. "What a beautiful way to preserve them -- and show them that they have self-worth."

Their teacher, Bill Faltinoski, was contacted by the Memory Project, a nonprofit organization based in Middleton, Wisconsin, about the possibility of his students participating in their mission of creating portraits of children around the world who face substantial hardships.

The project fit in with one of their regular units, Faltinoski says, on watercolor portraits, where they learn about the proportions of the face as well as watercolor technique. But the concept offered something more, he added.

"I loved the idea," Faltinoski says. "It turns an assignment into something that is real."

The Memory Project dates back to 2004, and since that time its four staff members have received more than 100,000 portraits of children in 43 countries created by U.S. teens. The organization works with global charities to facilitate their work. This year's portraits are devoted to Syrian children living in refugee camps.

According to the Memory Project's website, these portraits help the children feel valued and important, and serve as meaningful pieces of personal history in the future. At the same time, they see it as an opportunity for art students to creatively practice kindness and global awareness.

That seemed to be the case in Faltinoski's second floor art studio, where students worked on their portraits, going off of an 8-by-10-inch photo of their child. All each student knew of their subject was their name, age and favorite color, which they were to use in the background.

Senior Billy Mueller of Prospect Heights admitted this was his first portrait. Although he has sketched animals before, he had never painted a person, let alone a child. Yet, in looking at the face of Ibrahim, whose favorite color is blue, Mueller says he feels as if he knows him.

"I think about him and want him to know that people are there for him and are looking out for him," Mueller said.

Junior Sarah McDermott of Chicago is a director of the Children of Abraham Coalition, whose mission is to promote interfaith dialogue, particularly among Christians, Jews and Muslims. That's why she found the name of her subject, Salam, to be particularly moving.

"Salam means 'peace' in Muslim," McDermott said. "I love it."

At the next table, sophomore Jeremy Zhu sits with other students from Korea. While he works to get the color and effects just right in his first time using watercolors, he says he found the project moving on a personal level.

"It is very meaningful," he said simply.

As part of the project, officials with the Memory Project will film the portraits being hand delivered to the Syrian children. These children also will learn the name of the high school student who created their likeness, and of their favorite color.

"It's been an interesting project, and somewhat complicated," said sophomore Jenna Woods of Palatine. "I mean, I want it to look not only realistic -- but perfect."

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