Photo: Sculpture artist Kelly Thiel and child. PHOTO BY GARY CALICOTT
When a Jewish farm mom meets another rural Jewish woman at the food coop, it’s a good bet that a friendship will blossom. Elaine Eisenbraun met Lily while sorting bulk organic food.
Their families formed a tight bond, sharing many kiddushim and milestones, helping each other through an unlikely number of health challenges, from cancer to heart surgery. Lily’s two children seemed endlessly afflicted with asthma. Then the doctor revealed a different diagnosis. It was cystic fibrosis. The devastated family had to relocate to a more urban area, where a children’s hospital could provide steady care.
Elaine wondered how her family could share enduring friendship, support and compassion from so far away. One day, she was watching her talented daughter, Kristen, paint a portrait on canvas. Perhaps a portrait of the children would bring solace to their dear friends? Kristen painted the portrait, Grandma had it framed and Elaine sent the surprise package.
Upon finding the gift on their doorstep, Lily phoned, exclaiming, “This portrait is a treasure! We hung it so it is the first thing we see in the mornings. It gives us courage.”
Those words didn’t fall lightly on Elaine’s ears. They replayed in her mind, where she imagined bringing the same peace to others facing critical childhood illness. Her two daughters, Laura and Kristen, felt the same, and Portrait Connection was formed.
Elaine left her job and steady income. The organization received nonprofit status, and planning began to paint portraits for families across the country facing serious childhood ailments.
The three women knew they needed to get the word out, so one day Elaine went into Cascade Publications in Bend, OR. She hesitantly asked for a little blurb in the arts magazine, and the editor loved what they were doing.
He said, “If you bring me 10 portraits by March 1, I’ll give you the cover and a feature article.”
Elaine calmly said, “Sure thing!” then went out to the car and exclaimed, “How will we even begin to accomplish this!”
The timing was almost impossible; there was no money to pay 10 artists and there were no Central Oregon portraits in queue. But nonprofits are capable of tremendous feats, and the family’s Jewish heritage taught them that belief mixed with rachamim, or compassion, is powerful.
The new challenge also created an idea for incorporating the whole community into the plan. What if the 10 portraits were presented at a public celebration? It would open the eyes of neighbors, who are often unaware of the everyday struggles of neighbors in medical upheaval. That portrait presentation celebration, Power of Art: Portraits, became the first event of its kind and included a month-long exhibition.
The response to the event was astounding. The outpouring of communal compassion at these Portrait Presentation Ceremonies is beyond compare. The many tears shed at the event were neither tears of sadness nor of joy, but simply of humanity.
Several families have said that their child’s portrait has changed their lives. It creates a sanctuary of joy in their homes where they can look into the eyes of their beloved child and feel courage infiltrating their souls. One family said, “This portrait is worth a million dollars to us.” A father said, “After a tough night, I come downstairs and look into his eyes, and it just flips on the positive switch.” Another mom explained, “Our son’s condition is terminal. Someday this is all we’ll have.”
Portrait Connection shares a brand new concept. While “Arts in Healthcare” is a growing phenomenon around the world, its emphasis is on hospital settings. What if we can bring art back to its roots as a messenger in our own homes, where it can convey the ultimate message of compassion to families who need to know that we all care, and to artists who need our support to keep their craft alive? The gift is priceless.
Elaine Eisenbraun is both the author of this piece and the founder of Portrait Connections.