The Memory Project: Portraits of Purpose

This spring, eleven portraits — created by students of the DSHA Art Club  joined a group of roughly 4,500 portraits that made their way oversees to the Syrian border where over two million Syrians have been relocated to temporary neighborhoods and refugee camps. Despite being recently relocated from their war-torn homeland, and with barely any possessions to their names, eleven of these children now hold a Dasher-created portrait to cherish for a lifetime.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, Visual Arts Faculty Caitlin Elrod shared a video with the DSHA Art Club that she moderates. The video was created by the non-profit organization, the Memory Project, whose mission “invites art teachers, art students, and solo 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 loss of parents.”
Each year, the Memory Project works with willing art teachers like Elrod, sending photographs of individual children to schools around the United States. Students then create specialized portraits of these children that are intended to help them feel valued; to know that people care about their well-being; and as the organization shares in its mission, “to provide a special childhood memory in the future.”
This year’s video invited student artists to create portraits for children that had been affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. The short film also showed what life is like for these children and their families. “The girls saw how their lives are so different; how they have nothing,” Elrod shares. “This project perfectly pairs the giftedness of our art students with the mission of our school. And to see them get so passionate about it  that is what I love about teaching.”
Lera Davis, DSHA ’20, was a member of the art club this past year, and will serve as the club’s president this coming fall. And she remembers what it is like to have nothing as a small child  she sees herself in the child whose portrait she painted.
Davis was born near St. Petersburg, Russia to young parents who struggled with alcohol addiction. Her biological parents, she shares, were not equipped to care for her and her brother (who is less than a year younger.) “My mom went into hiding when she was supposed to take care of us. My father took care of us for a while, but then the government split us up as a family.”
She was placed in an orphanage at age 3, and lived there with her brother until age 6 when they were adopted by her parents. Details about this time of her life are fuzzy, but she remembers the emotions she felt very clearly.
It is worth noting that Davis likes to share her story with others  it is a part of who she is. Her past is important to her and a large part of why she is drawn to the visual arts. “There is healing in art; I express all of my emotions  the joy and the hurt  through my art. It is therapy for me from my past,” she says.
“I grew up in poverty. I had absolutely nothing except my brother until age 6. I know the feeling these kids would have if they received a piece of art that someone created just for them,” she shares thinking about being on the receiving end of a portrait. “It is that somebody would have taken the time to look at my photograph, and then taken the time and care to see me and paint me.”
Davis points out that while living in Russia, it was not typical for anyone to do anything special for her (or her brother) during this time of their lives. There were no birthday parties with cake and family; there were no trips to the park or the ice cream store. But when she thinks about what it might have meant to be on the receiving end of this project, she glows sharing, “I think little six year old me would have been overwhelmed and so surprised if she had received this type of portrait as a child. It would have meant somebody cared about me.”
Because of the connection, the Memory Project offered a unique type of healing for Davis through her art. And she knew right away she would take part after learning about the project from Elrod at the beginning of the school year.
When Elrod received DSHA’s stack of photographs, each willing student from the art club chose a child. Davis chose Rana, a 7 year old girl whose favorite color is orange. And though knowing so little, Davis was drawn to her right away. “I chose her because of her smile. She resonated with me, reminding me of myself as a child  living in poverty, but still being happy in a situation that wasn’t happy,” she says with a grin clearly meant for Rana, whom she got to know through her studying her face for weeks in the fall.
Davis took painstaking care of this piece of art, recognizing the sense of belonging it would give to Rana when she would hold it in her hand months later. “I worked on it for two months. I took to heart that her joy would come in seeing herself through my work. It was more important to me than any project I would get a grade for.”
Davis has openly struggled with depression in her life. The connections that she has made through her art classes and projects at DSHA have been crucial to her healing process, particularly the relationship that she has formed with Elrod, whom she has worked with in both class and co-curricular activities.
“Mrs. Elrod has given me so much confidence. She compliments my work, but also coaches and gives the feedback I need to get better,” she says. But the relationship extends beyond the work. “She is my mentor  in life beyond the art. She cares about me and is helping me become the person I am today. I talk to her about everything.”
Elrod has also helped Davis find a larger purpose in her work. “She’s helped me let go of my self-critic, and that has come from working on something like the Memory Project. When it is about something bigger than myself I can let that inner critic go,” Davis shares.
“I felt a sense of peace when I was painting Rana  it was time to reflect on so many things. When I am doing art, I am doing what God created me to do. And He is not only working through me for someone else, but He was healing my own heart when I was painting her.”
Davis circles back to her time in the orphanage after reflecting on the healing that has occurred through her work on the Memory Project. “When I was in the orphanage, all I felt was pain and suffering and abandonment. That nobody loved me and nobody cared. But people do. And I feel that at DSHA. I’m able to thrive and stand here today because of the opportunities I’ve had at DSHA. And I want to be that for others in my life.”
    • Lera Davis, DSHA '20, a master at work in the DSHA Visual Arts Suite.

    • Rana (photographed, R), a 7 year old Syrian refugee child is painted (painted, L) by Lera Davis, DSHA '20.


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  • S. Grace Croft
    This is an amazing and touching life story. And, thanks to Ms. Elrod for initiating this project.

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