Pocatello High School art students paint and draw portraits for disadvantaged children in Mexico

By Rebecca Long Pyper

For 13 hours Pocatello High School art student Eleazar Resendiz analyzed the photo of a girl he’d never met.

He knew little about her — she is five, and she lives in Mexico — but he wanted to draw her portrait and give her the kind of gift she’d treasure for a lifetime.

Resendiz wasn’t the only art student with this kind of goal in mind. Fellow students in Poky’s advanced painting and drawing classes also pored over photos, trying to figure out just how they’d turn a picture into a keepsake for a child they’d never meet.

The focus and effort is part of an assignment where children in orphanages around the world are photographed, and American students draw or paint them.

“It is a global cross-curriculum lesson where my students learn about another country’s culture, economy (and) education,” said PHS art teacher Jen VanWasshenova, who adopted the annual project four years ago.

The idea was sparked by the Memory Project, an initiative designed to create portraits for disadvantaged children worldwide. For two years VanWasshenova, a six-year teacher from Michigan, worked with founder Ben Schumaker before heading out on her own to reduce costs. Now she works closely with Christian organization Back2Back to secure photos of orphaned children, as well as a few details about them.

The assignment feels good but is practical too since students are taught techniques specific to drawing or painting the human face. For Resendiz, that meant learning about lighting and shadows, angles and shapes of noses, and blending pinks and browns and tans to pinpoint skin color — “it’s not just one colored pencil, it’s not just two, it could be five or six different shades,” he said.

The children far away receive the originals, and it’s a form of validation — of showing that kids in another country recognize and celebrate them. “It is an act of kindness and love. The fact that someone has looked at their face for hours at a time signifies the importance and worth of that individual,” VanWasshenova said. “I hope to inspire my students to do good, inspire others and love.”

In 2014 VanWasshenova and her husband paid their own way to travel to India and hand-deliver 80 portraits to children in the city of Hyderabad. Because such a trip is costly, she is unable to deliver the personally deliver the portraits every year. The portraits will be mailed to the Mexican children the end of May.

Each student artists will receive a photo of the child with his or her portrait, plus a high-resolution copy of the completed portrait. But even without his copy, Resendiz said he will always have that little girl’s image in his mind.

“Sometimes things might not be so great there, and she’ll get that (portrait) and actually see, ‘Somebody took that much time to draw me and look at my face for hours. Someone that’s far away that has a talent recognizes me,’” he said.

 Art teacher Jen VanWasshenova’s annual project isn’t cheap; she must provide art supplies, cover printing and mailing costs and more. Grant money she received is dwindling, and if unable to secure more grants, she’ll be paying for the project out of pocket next year. For information on donating to the project, contact Shelley Allen with the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District at 235-3257.

Photos by Jenny Losee/Idaho State Journal.

3 thoughts on “Pocatello High School art students paint and draw portraits for disadvantaged children in Mexico

  1. Jennifer VanWasshenova is an excellent artist and I am privileged to own one of her watercolors and a pen and ink rendering of my home. I know that her project in India is extremely expensive and only hope that she can continue to find funding for this worthy project. Good Luck Jen!

  2. That’s my niece! I am so proud of her. We all are proud of her!
    Such a beautiful lady inside and out!

  3. Fantastic ! So many people benefit from a wonderful teacher who goes the extra mile. Congrats to Pocatello High School Art teacher Jen VanWasshenova. Kickstarter comes to mind to raise money to fund this project.

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