Members of the West Essex High School National Art Honor Society have created 35 beautiful portraits of less fortunate orphaned children in Sierra Leone, a West African nation plagued by civil war from 1991 to 2002.
In some of the portraits, you can see the pain in the children’s eyes from all of the suffering that they have experienced. It takes a talented young artist to capture this pain in a drawing just from looking a photograph. The portraits are now on display inside the main entrance of the high school.
“I did this project last year as well and to actually receive a photo of the child with your portrait of them made me feel great,” said artist Devon Gardner, a senior from Essex Fells. “It was just great seeing them look so happy.”
“I think it makes you feel good about yourself—it’s a selfless deed,” said junior Zoe Elfenbein of North Caldwell.
Dani Perelman, a junior from North Caldwell, said she liked writing a note to her orphan on the back of the portrait.
West Essex Art Honor Society Advisor Eileen Dormer, an art teacher at West Essex High School, said this is the seventh consecutive year that the society has participated in the International Memory Portrait Project and created portraits of children who have been orphaned by war, famine, disease or disaster. The portraits will be delivered personally to the children, along with a letter and photo from the student artist.
“For our students, the experience of studying the face of a child who is so much less fortunate is a true awakening,” Dormer said. The students use watercolors, colored pencil, pencil, pen, pastels and chalk pastels to create the portraits.
The honor society members will later receive photos of the children with their portraits. For many orphans, the portrait becomes a treasured belonging, reminding them they are not forgotten.
“I am not very strong in art,” noted senior Ciku Wathika of Fairfield. “Knowing that my art would make someone happy helped me feel more confident about my drawing.”
In the past, honor society students have drawn portraits of children in war-torn Uganda and AIDS-ridden Honduras and Myanmur (Burma.) “This year, we have been assigned orphans from Sierra Leone, where a civil war left a million people displaced and civil rights abuses, particularly for women and girls, are prevalent,” Dormer said.
The International Memory Project requires a minimum of $15 per portrait to cover costs, which is funded through the Dress in Denim program at West Essex, where teachers and staff donate $5 on select Fridays to wear jeans.