Linking the work of Shepard Fairey to the Memory Project

By Lora Marie Durr

Fine Art 1 students at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Mercer County recently participated in a portrait project that connected them to children on the other side of the world. As its website notes, the Memory Project is a charitable nonprofit organization that invites art teachers, art students and individual artists to help cultivate global kindness by creating portraits for children around the world who have faced substantial challenges, such as violence, war, extreme poverty, neglect and the loss of parents. Participants create these portraits to help children feel valued and important, to know that many people care about their well-being, and to provide a special childhood memory in the future.

Twenty-seven students from Hopewell Valley joined this meaningful project in the fall of 2018 to create portraits of Syrian children. These portraits were created using acrylic paint and used the grid method for reproducing the image. Students use a ruler to draw a grid on the original photo. They then draw a grid of equal or larger scale onto the final surface. Each box of the grid is redrawn onto the new surface. It is a mathematical way to approach drawing—specifically if you desire to enlarge an image—that breaks the image down into smaller parts.

Upon completion, the portraits were returned to the Memory Project where they will be distributed to the Syrian refugee children.

Many art programs around the state and country have participated in this organization’s mission. Working with portraiture is a part of almost every high school art curriculum and thus the Memory Project can easily be incorporated into the year’s plans. To date, artists working with the Memory Project have created over 130,000 portraits for children in 47 countries.

Many art programs around the state and country have participated in this organization’s mission. Working with portraiture is a part of almost every high school art curriculum and thus the Memory Project can easily be incorporated into the year’s plans.

The role of activism in art

At Hopewell Valley we decided to take a slightly different approach for the creation of our portraits. First, we discussed the work of street artist, Shepard Fairey, best known for the “Hope” and “Change” posters from the campaign of President Barack Obama. We also viewed and discussed the “We the People” campaign released during the first Women’s March. The students applied their understanding of the visual art elements and principles of design to interpret the style and symbolism in Fairey’s images. Students read and responded to articles about the role of activism in the contemporary art world, both in America and in Syria.

“The biggest take away from my participation in this project was the realization of what’s happening in other parts of the world,” student Nicole Bartnikowski wrote. “It opened my eyes to new perspectives and allowed me to understand how grateful I am to be living in this country with freedom.”

With an understanding of Shepard Fairey’s style in hand, each student selected a child from the photos we were sent by the Memory Project. Each photo contained a child’s name, age and favorite color. The students used the Syrian child’s favorite color as a starting point for a three-color palette, keeping in mind the way Shepard Fairey used color in his portraits. Students also selected a traditional Syrian pattern that would commonly be found in fabrics produced in Damascus. This pattern was incorporated into the background of the portrait, similar to the way Shepard Fairey has incorporated pattern in many of his portraits.

Throughout the creation of the portraits, students watched videos from the Memory Project exploring the culture and crisis in Syria. These video clips helped the students at Hopewell Valley to empathize with children from the other side of the world living lives very different from their own. The lesson materials shared by the Memory Project brought a personal voice to the crisis that helped the students to connect with the individuals for whom they were creating portraits.

A time for reflection

Upon completion, students were asked to reflect on the project in writing. Student responses referred to the shift that occurred during the lesson as they began to empathize with their child.

“The Memory Project forced me to constantly think about the refugee I was drawing,” Aima Bhatti wrote. “I felt something sad in her eyes, and that’s when it struck me that I should be forever grateful for everything in my life and the country that I live in. This project taught me humility and reminded me of how people in America constantly take their lives for granted.”

Students stated they had a deeper understanding of the role of art as a tool for activism and social change and felt they had personally participated in an activist art project.

“This project shows how you can help people with your artistic talent,” wrote Dominic Guarino. “Art can have a role in politics and foreign affairs because you can spread emotion and views of certain topics through your work.”

Other students referenced the way the lesson allowed for engagement with a contemporary issue in a more meaningful and direct way.

“For me, the biggest take-away from The Memory Project is that art can be a powerful way to bring joy to someone’s life while also teaching an important message,” Ellie Brown wrote. “During this project, I learned a lot about the issues occurring in Syria that opened my eyes to the lives that these children are living.”

Hopewell Valley Central High School students display portraits of Syrian children created for the Memory Project.

Sharing lessons learned

Students shared the lesson with our school community. First, the work was displayed in our school building with QR Code links to more information on the Memory Project and the Syrian crisis. Next, four students were interviewed by our television and video students for the “Morning Buzz,” a weekly morning news program produced by students at Hopewell Valley. Lastly, four more students attended a Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education meeting on January 14, 2019, to present their work and their thoughts to the school board and the administration.

After the “Morning Buzz” presentation many faculty members commented on the power of the lesson. Members of the school board and administration personally thanked the students for sharing their learning and were moved by the artwork.

The Memory Project brought a personal voice to the crisis that helped the students to connect with the individuals for whom they were creating portraits.

Participation in the Memory Project was meaningful for the students. As an educator, I saw this project as a wonderful opportunity to connect learners with contemporary approaches to artmaking that involve activism and social issues. I believe the connection we made between the mission of the Memory Project and the work of Shepard Fairey helped the students to develop a deeper understanding of the power of art and its ability to connect people from different cultures across the world. I believe that painting portraits for children on the other side of the world made a difference in the lives of the artist and the recipient.

I am especially grateful to Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education and the Visual and Performing Arts Department Supervisor Ron Heller for supporting the students in this endeavor.

Learn more about participating in the Memory Project with your students.

Lora Marie Durr has been an educator in Mercer County since 2001. She currently works at Hopewell Valley Central High School teaching Art 2, Fine Art 1, Fine Art 2 and AP Studio Art. Outside of the classroom, Lora is a painter and currently serves as President Elect of the Art Educators of NJ.  She can be reached at loradurr@hvrsd.org.

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