When Deb Abbate first saw a photograph of Syrian children injured during an attack in their war-torn country, she was heartbroken. But she didn’t think there was anything she could do about it from her home in far northwest suburban Oakwood Hills.
Six years later, Abbate, an artist, said that image, “is still burned into my heart,” but now she’s found a way to help with just her paintbrush.
Abbate, 75, decided to paint portraits of the children she saw in photographs and sell the paintings to raise money for charities that help Syrian refugees who have fled their home country.
Thanks to Abbate’s recruiting, her idea spread across artist groups, and now more than 20 other artists throughout the northwest suburbs are involved. Their work is part of a traveling exhibit now on display through the end of July at McHenry County College.
“It’s a little thing we can do with what we know how to do, which is paint portraits,” Abbate said. So far, they’ve raised about $7,000 for three charities — World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and Act for Peace — which also gave the artists permission to paint images based on the photos that appear on their websites. The portraits do not depict images of injured children, she said.
Each artist chose photographs to paint that spoke to them, Abbate said. Besides raising funds for charity, the artists are hoping the exhibit also brings awareness of the Syrian conflict and how it affects children in the region, she said.
“We hope people will look at these children and see their own,” Abbate said. “What would this be like if this happened in our country? These are people just like us.”
World Vision — one of the charities Abbate chose — estimates 5 million Syrian refugees are now living in exile since the start of Syria’s civil war six years ago, and more than 6 million more are displaced within Syria. About half of those affected are children, according the group, and with no end in sight to the fighting there, the number of those fleeing is likely to grow.
Local artist Judith Hollister of Crystal Lake said she was searching for a new project when Abbate approached her about the Syrian portrait project.
She’s completed two paintings for the exhibit and is working on two more. Before the display opened at the college, the paintings hung at three different churches, Hollister said, and the group was surprised by the sales and the interest from the public.
“The generosity of the people and the response was so wonderful,” she said. “We were overwhelmed.”
Diane Ward of Crystal Lake, a retired art teacher, said she helped Abbate come up with the idea of selling her first portrait of a Syrian child, and decided to paint some herself.
Ward said she keeps painting, and is working on her fifth portrait, which she plans to add to the exhibit when it moves later this year to Lakeside Arts Park at the Dole in Crystal Lake.
In searching photos of Syrian children, Ward said, “you find somebody and fall in love with them and decide to paint them.”
Ward said she saw her granddaughter’s “big brown eyes” in the first subject she chose to paint.
“It’s wonderful,” she added of the project. “You can pray for this kid … while you’re painting them.”
Sandra Lang, gallery curator at the community college, said she often picks community groups’ work for display during the summer, and was intrigued by the refugee project when Abbate approached her about it appearing in the gallery.
“I really like seeing artists giving themselves to a cause they believe in,” she said. “To be able to use the gallery space to showcase that? Not just their talent but what artists can do as a group for a positive outcome? That was really appealing to me.”
“Painting Syria’s Children: The Refugee Portrait Project” is on display in the Epping Gallery at the college, 8900 U.S. Highway 14, Crystal Lake. For more information, or to view the artists’ work, visit www.mchenry.edu/artgallery.