Engaging Communities Through Creativity
This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here.
When KCAD Illustration Professor Patricia Constantine first told a group of her students seven years ago they would be drawing portraits of orphans, she knew it would be a meaningful assignment for them. However, she did not anticipate the infinitely lasting and emotional impact it would have on her students.
“I saw how it changed them,” Constantine says. “It allows students to take their talent and do something that contributes to a community and an outside cause.”
Constantine has a long-standing partnership with The Memory Project, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that brings personalized portraits to children throughout the world who suffer from abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, or loss of parents. The Memory Project works with art educators and their students nationwide to create these pictorial keepsakes for orphans.
Over the years, it has proven to be more than just a drawing assignment. “Our students see the impact they can have on the world and that’s important for them to understand – not just as artists, but as human beings – as people,” Constantine says.
Constantine’s favorite part of the project: seeing the raw emotion on her students’ faces when they watch a video of the smiling and often ecstatic children receiving their portraits.
“It wakes them up,” Constantine says. “It allows my students to reach out to children in other countries and make a difference.”
A child in Madagascar displays the portrait a KCAD student created for her through the Memory project (credit: The Memory Project)
The Memory Project has distributed nearly 90,000 portraits to orphans across the globe since it was founded in 2004, according to Founder and Director Ben Schumaker. He developed the idea while volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala. There, he learned orphans often do not have any photos of themselves — no keepsakes of their childhood.
“That struck a chord with me,” Schumaker says. “I hadn’t thought of the psychological or the emotional needs of the kids. They don’t have anyone taking photos of them and recording their life story.”
Each year, The Memory Project receives photos from its orphanage partners and distributes them to art educators throughout the U.S. Students then create personalized portraits using paint, mixed media, and color or black and white drawings.
This year, students in Constantine’s Head, Hands, and Feet class drew portraits of orphans in Colombia.
“I really value the partnership with KCAD,” Schumaker says. “The students put a lot of time into their art and they do it with care and thoughtfulness, and that really shows through.”
The Memory Project is just one way KCAD incorporates cultural expression and community involvement. Numerous KCAD instructors, students, and alumni build creative culture in various demographic groups through community partnerships, such as with the Cook Arts Center, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts’ (SCA’s) Growing Young Artists Program, and the Artworks and Exit Space Project initiatives organized by KCAD’s Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).
Last spring, KCAD alumnus Ricardo Gonzalez (’16, MFA) worked closely with the Cook Arts Center and local community members to transform a 100-foot-by-40-foot exterior wall of a former supermarket into a work of art. The mural, located at 912 Grandville Avenue, was part of a collaborative exhibition for ArtPrize Eight that won the Installation juried award and a share of the Outstanding Venue award. About 20 people in the community had a hand in creating the piece.
“This community has been here for a long time and deserves just as much attention as other parts of Grand Rapids,” Gonzalez says. “It’s a nice focal point to reflect the culture in this community and it was an uplifting process to emphasize self-expression for the people who live and work there.”
Last summer, KCAD alumna and SCA volunteer Sofía Ramírez Hernández (’14, BFA Printmaking) led West Michigan migrant students in a theatrical production she wrote and directed. Throughout the three-week Growing Young Artists program, started by KCAD alumna and current UICA Executive Director Miranda Krajniak (’06, BFA Drawing), students designed and produced stage sets and costumes and emulated the characters however they wished. For many of the students, it was the first time they had set foot in a theater.
“It’s a great bridge for the arts that gives children an opportunity to work together on a project,” says Ramírez Hernández, who’s originally from Mexico City. “Putting on a play together is a metaphor for orchestrating changes in the real world. If children can see what they can accomplish on a small scale, they’ll feel empowered to make changes in their community.”
The annual summer program consists of 100-120 migrant students who work in teams with bilingual art professionals and teachers. By being provided with artistic experiences to create and tell their story in their own space, students often discover a new avenue to express themselves, explains Whitney Valentine, SCA’s education and exhibit coordinator.
“We’re using art as a vehicle to elevate what they’re already learning,” says Valentine. “Because art is a key in unlocking linguistics, the ability to open up grows by leaps and bounds. It empowers students to use their voice and use art to make an impact on the world.”
In Grand Rapids, UICA’s ArtWorks program offers teens a real-world application in art, design, and installation projects while providing paid onsite job training and mentoring. The annual five-week summer internship program offers 36 students the opportunity to form relationships with area businesses and explore the city outside the four walls of a classroom, explains Katherine Williams, UICA community program coordinator and KCAD alumna (’10, BFA Printmaking), who is currently pursuing an MFA at the college.
“It’s an experience that gives them exposure to pursue a career in the arts. Students meet with clients, understand their needs and work on specific human-centered design projects,” she says. “They get to see parts of the city they might not otherwise be exposed to because of this program — acquainting themselves with the uniqueness of this town and forming a meaningful relationship with Grand Rapids.”
Aspiring creatives in the UICA ArtWorks program learn about color theory.
UICA’s Exit Space Project launched last year as a test space for artists to publicly install art. It has since evolved into a large-scale mural endeavor throughout Grand Rapids. UICA secured adequate funding to support five local and Midwest artists currently featured in Exit Space. Their artwork will be on display for five years in public spaces, including Lincoln Park Lodge on Bridge Street, the retaining wall of the I-196 exit ramp at North Division Street, and the back of the Grand Rapids Ballet Co. building on Ellsworth Avenue Southwest. “All the locations are picked specifically to optimize visibility as people enter and exit Grand Rapids,” Williams says, noting many of the murals serve as popular backdrops for wedding, prom, and family photos. “The artists develop a connection with the city and form a relationship with the people in the community.”
Future Exit Space artwork will be displayed on public spaces throughout Grand Rapids, such as permitted utility boxes, bus stops, buildings, and construction sites.
Artist Louise Chen in front of "Untitled," the mural she created through UICA's Exit Space project.
“It’s a way of putting roots down and is a major marker or milestone in some of these artists’ lives,” Williams says. “Over the last two years the program has grown overwhelmingly in such a positive way, and it is becoming more recognizable in the city.”
Whether right down the road or halfway around the world, you’ll find KCAD community members engaging with communities through creating a difference in the lives of others.