Inspiring Empathy through Artmaking

Inspiring Empathy Through Artmaking / Abbie Bowker / Champlain Valley Union High School

“It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” ― Käthe Kollwitz

Art and empathy.  There is rarely a better match. 

Zaza Quatt

Zaza Quatt

Since 2008, the Visual Arts Department at Champlain Valley High School has participated in the Memory Project, an art project that centers around the art of giving. 

Rosie Oates
Rosie Oates

As one of the Visual Arts teachers, I have consistently organized and worked alongside The Memory Project, a charitable national non-profit organization, who invites art teachers and their students to create portraits for youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges.  Some of these youth have been traumatized by neglect, abuse, the loss of parents, extreme poverty and/or violence in their communities.


Jam Guibardo

Jam Guibardo

jonathan walsh

Jonathan Walsh 

Students prep for the lesson by reflecting on a few questions in their sketchbook surrounding the upcoming project.  These prompts are designed to open the door for empathy and understanding.  I have found that we can paint the portrait without the conversation, but it then is just an exercise in technique.  By connecting to the subject and the “why” behind the work, students gain a deeper understanding about themselves and the world around them.

   These preparatory measures lay the foundation for students to begin to consider the person that they are painting, the connection between their art and their recipient.  One of the main tenets of Design Thinking is empathy, and when producing an artwork an understanding of audience linked to intent should influence an artistic decision making along the way.  Here the path was clear.  Students response for this project has always been incredible.  Since the 2008-09 school year our school has produced 462 portraits sent to children and teens all over the world: Ukraine, Peru, Afghanistan, Haiti, Ghana, Romania, Syria and Tanzania.  


bree process sketch

Bree process sketch

Every year coming into this project students recognize this opportunity to make a real difference. Of course it is not only a lesson in humanity, but also in art.  We spend countless hours pouring over the images of these subjects – staring into their eyes, noticing the curve

bree process paint sketch
Bree process paint sketch

of their lip, the fullness of a nose… we get to “know” these people in an intimate yet distant way.  We recognize them as a subject and have begun to empathize with their plight, we imagine their response when receiving the portrait and it makes us want to work harder to get it “just right.”  We learn about paint application techniques and do a number of studies from graphite drawings to hone proportion to watercolor exploration before launching into the final product.  All these portraits from all over the world had a connection to the artist, yet were still thousands of miles away in a life recognizably distant from our own.


Bree Kolibas

Bree Kolibas

Last year was a little different.  It was a year where amazing coincidence helped us recognize that the world is not so big, that people from all around the world weave the thread of one humanity.  In the fall, we received photos of Syrian youth who are living in refugee camps as a result of the humanitarian crisis there.  And there are many people living in such camps.  According to the information given by the Memory Project at the time of our assignment, “The Syrian people have suffered greatly during the past five years of their country’s civil war, which has led to the largest and most complex humanitarian crisis in the world.  A quarter million killed, 1.5 million injured, 4.5 million refugees, and many millions more displaced or isolated from help.”  As you likely know this number has continued to grow.  This work for us here in Vermont could not have been more timely as when we were finishing painting our portraits in January, a debate raged 54 short miles south of us in Rutland regarding a Refugee Resettlement plan for their small city.  It became a local battleground for a National debate.  It was quite ugly. Students were now considering not only these children thousands of miles away, but how others like them would be received in their own home state.

class syrian portraits

Class Syrian Portraits




After the unit was complete, one student reflected in her sketchbook:

“Art serves as a form of expression and communication for myself and within my community.  Art also is a way of showing creativity and stress release.  The memory project helped me put the refugee crisis in perspective.  Before working on the memory project I had learned a lot about the refugee crisis.  However, actually seeing a picture of a child refugee it really humanized the issue for me and gave me a different outlook.  After painting my refugee child I would put myself in their shoes and think of my life as a five year old.  This made me grateful for everything I have and made me further appreciate other cultures, values, and points of view because we are all coming from different backgrounds and situations, giving us all different outlooks.” Rosie Oates (CVU ‘17)

The spring semester we found ourselves matched with youth from Tanzania. The youth of Tanzania are in many different types of situations and face many challenges.  According to the information given to us from The Memory Project, more than one million children have lost either one or two parents to AIDS.  Many of these orphaned children have undergone neglect and discrimination.  The crisis is getting worse.  Substantial poverty, lack of reliable safe drinking water, and many other factors including an influx of Burundian refugees has made the World Health Organization declare conditions in Tanzania as being a severe humanitarian crisis.   Again, thousands of miles away and yet closer than you’d think.  One student in our class was a refugee from Tanzania which created wonderful opportunity for him to share about his culture and help our students to connect with their subjects.  

class Tanzania

Class Tanzania Project



With her permission, I have taken excerpts from one student’s sketchbook to chronicle the journey from start to delivery of the portraits.  

From the sketchbook of Bree Kolibas:

Prompt: Imagine that you have found yourself in a situation like the children we are making portraits for.  Now consider what it would be like to have very few photos or other keepsakes that reflect your personal identity.  What do you think the portrait you make will mean to the child or teenager who receives it?

“I believe that this work will mean a whole lot to these children since they don’t get a lot of gifts or things to help them remember their childhood.  This will be something that they can cherish forever and be able to look back and see how they looked when they were younger.  We sometimes take having photos for granted and we don’t realize that tons of people around the world never get/got to see what they look like when they were smaller.”

Prompt: altruism n. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

You are making something to give away to somebody that you will never meet. What does this mean to you? What does it mean in terms of this artwork?

“I never thought of this as being an art of selflessness, I just thought about it as giving a gift to someone that would really enjoy this.  Thinking of it as an unselfish act makes me think about how special and thoughtful this gift actually is for these children.  For this unit it means a lot, first off that we have to work our butts off to really make this look amazing and like these children because they will keep these forever.  This is definitely the toughest unit because it’s not just for a grade but for a child in need.”

Prompt: How will you strike a balance between wanting to give fully of yourself through your artwork, finishing on a deadline and making something that could quite possibly be the best thing you have ever made that you aren’t going to keep?  

“Even though we will not be keeping this artwork that we worked very hard on, just the thought of knowing that we will make tons of children happy is the gift that we receive back.  The balance between it is just not looking to get any physical thing back from this but more emotionally.  As for doing my best work and meeting the deadline, I believe I can do this because this project is very important and needs to be done perfectly and timely.”


For the children and youth receiving the portraits, it is something special beyond words.  For my students it was an equally important gift.  The Memory Project delivers these portraits and makes a video to share with our class, so that our students can see the joy it brings to their recipients. Sometimes, these deliveries happen over the summer and I no longer see my students to share this with them in person.  It was so with our Tanzanian portraits.  I sent along an email with a link so that my past year’s class could see the delivery.  I had a couple of email responses in return:

From Lauren Johnson:

“I just wanted to let you know that I watched the memory project video and it was absolutely amazing to see the reactions of the kids. I really hope you continue to do this projects with many classes in the future because I think it is so unique and it’s a beautiful experience and a great way to find meaning in ones own artwork.”  (CVU Class of ‘17)

From Bree Kolibas:

Being able to watch these kids reactions to getting their portraits is so heart warming. These kids don’t have a lot but all I saw in the video was so much happiness and laughter from everyone. This shows that no matter how much you have you can still live a happy life. This small act of selflessness and kindness that we perceive it to be meant the world to them and it really showed. Seeing just how happy these kids got over getting these portraits can really make you think about your life and how small acts of kindness can really make a difference in anyone’s life. This experience was truly very meaningful and a really awesome way to share some love from so far away. This project is something that I would love to continue to do in my life, I think that everyone should be able to experience something like this. (CVU Class of ‘19)

Although our work does not give voice to suffering, as Kathe Kollwitz so beautifully did, it gives voice to hope.  It gives voice to celebration of those who deserve to be celebrated.  It creates a bridge between cultures and it brings awareness to our own thread and how we weave together the fabric of humanity.
Resources and other reading:

Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004.  


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