Classroom of the Week | A cultural identity-inspired art project for meaningful causes

DALTON — As with most of their academic classes, the students in Bonnie Capogna's art major class said they're used to doing work — in this case, painting, sculpting or drawing — and turning it in for a critique and a grade. Their finished work would, perhaps, be hung on a wall, or given to a loved one as a gift, or just sit on a shelf or inside a portfolio for an undetermined amount of time.

But this semester, the Wahconah Regional High School art students have been turning out work for more meaningful causes.

This fall, the class worked on a cultural identity-inspired art project, which has been hanging in the Berkshire Juvenile Court building for the families who pass through there to ponder.

In early November, after seeing a Facebook post for a terminally ill Maine boy named Jacob Thompson, 9, who requested handmade cards for his last Christmas, Capogna offered the creative task to her students as a charitable way to employ their skills.

"We thought it was really touching. It made some of us want to cry," said senior Catherine Keller, after they learned about Thompson's diagnosis of Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer.

"Some of us did cry," senior Lauren Combs said.

"The students were so proud and willing to be able to do something kind and uplifting for Jacob," Capogna said. "I truly have a great bunch of students!"

Capogna's aspiring college art majors answered that very day, sending more than a dozen cards and a class photo the boy's way. His family celebrated Christmas on Nov. 12, a few days after the Wahconah class sent the cards. Jacob died about a week later, his last weeks enriched by an international outpouring of more than 66,000 cards, gifts and encouraging video messages, according to The Portland Press Herald.

"It made us feel good that his love went around the world," Roger Guay, the boy's father, told the Press Herald.

After the card project, Capogna offered another opportunity to her students, to take part in The Memory Project, a nonprofit that invites art teachers and their students to create and donate portraits to youths in crisis. This week, the art students are wrapping up painting portraits of 13 children who are Syrian refugees, based on photos they received through the organization.

The portrait painters are: Keller, Lauren Combs, Molly Gingras, Maddie Heon, Renee Lussier, Jayde MacWilliams, Arden McKnight, Victoria Orlandi, Brandon Schneid, Nicole Trova, Aleksandra Tsangarides, Madison Wallace and Jess Warren.

The purpose of giving the portraits to children and teenagers in crisis, according to The Memory Project's website, is "to help the children feel valued and important, to know that many people care about their well being, and to act as meaningful pieces of personal history in the future."

"These kids deserve the world," said Keller, who not only painted a portrait, but wrote the boy she painted a letter in English and then researched and translated it into Arabic.

Wallace, a senior, became so smitten with the child she painted, that she regularly refers to him as "my kid."

Several other students said that the opportunity to participate in these projects not only enhances their global knowledge, but also their skills.

"It makes me aware of what people are going through," said junior Nicole Trova.

"I've never painted a portrait before," said junior Maddie Heon. "I've made things for a grade, but now we're doing it for an actual person."

Wallace said it "makes you push harder to get it right, because you want it to be perfect for that other person."

Lauren Combs said of their outreach efforts: "I think of it as an adventure. We're not going to these places, but our art is."

Capogna believes that, with their skills and their sense of compassion, these students will go places in life. Already, several seniors in the class have been accepted into the art schools they've applied to. Others are looking to continue their community service-oriented work in art.

"The fact that they were excited about [these projects] as I am is amazing. Their energy is huge," she said.


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