De Pere High School junior Rachael Dorsey believes art has the power to connect people in every corner of the world. When art teacher Ashley Koehler presented Rachael and her classmates with the opportunity to draw or paint portraits of children in Pakistan and have the portraits hand-delivered to them via the Madison-based Memory Project, Rachael immediately jumped in.
““I think this project gives more meaning to my art than just hanging it on the wall. I like that people will feel a connection. If a hand-made portrait can bring them a smile and let them know someone cares, it’s a good thing to do.”
So Many Smiles
Since it was founded in a one-room Madison apartment in 2004, the not-for-profit Memory Project has recruited tens of thousands of teenage artists from around the world, including De Pere and other Wisconsin schools, to create thousands of personalized portraits of children living in orphanages, refugee camps and other difficult circumstances in dozens of counties.
Student artists receive photos of children, then paint or draw a likeness from the photo. Artists and recipients don’t meet—the Memory Project obtains the photos from various aid agencies, and distributes the photos to participating student artists. When completed, the student art is returned to the Memory Project whose volunteers travel around the world to hand-deliver the portraits to children.
Recently, the Memory Project forwarded a video to Koehler that incorporates images of De Pere art students who participated, the portraits they created and the joy expressed by Pakistani children upon receiving portraits from their new friends across the globe.
“I felt incredibly humbled,” says senior Kamille Kirschling. “To see their faces light up because of a simple portrait I painted. It brought me joy to see others excited about art.”
Curriculum and Kindness
Koehler learned about the Portrait Project through a personal contact. Intrigued by the concept, she researched the organization, the requirements and the costs.
“We needed to do our diligence. I was happy to learn about the Memory Project’s long and successful track record,” she says. “But the fee for our students to participate, although reasonable, was something we had to consider. It’s not something we budgeted for. And neither the time nor the money are a requirement for the class. It’s completely voluntary.”
When a donor stepped forward in 2019 to pay the $15 per artist cost which covers coordinating student artists and recipients; travel associated with delivery of the portraits; and various administrative costs Koehler felt the time was right to approach her students.
Equally important: the Portrait Project fit with her existing curriculum.
“Our Drawing and Painting 3 class was already working on portraiture—skin and hair tones, facial expressions and related techniques. This initiative gave my students the chance to stretch their skills, while adding a little kindness to the world.”
“I hope my artwork impacted them by emphasizing that each of us is unique and special in our own way,” says Kirschling. “That should be celebrated, and I hope it unites us.”
Unified School District of De Pere Student Artists Who Participated in the Memory Project
William Dodson, Ava Brey, Cloe Petty (all 2019 graduates); Kali Connelly, Rachael Dorsey, Bret Gerbers, Kamille Kirschling, Madeline Stevens, and Jadyn Toebe (current students).