Snohomish artist Cathy Tanasse works on facial proportions on one of her “Memory Project” portraits, March 19 in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snohomish artist Cathy Tanasse works on facial proportions on one of her “Memory Project” portraits, March 19 in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Snohomish artist forges connections through art

Cathy Tanasse, a retired Glacier Peak High School art teacher, draws portraits of strangers as gifts.

SNOHOMISH — A Snohomish artist draws portraits of strangers around the world to stay connected during the isolation COVID-19 has brought her.

Cathy Tanasse collaborates with a nonprofit called The Memory Project to create portraits based on photos of children in different countries as gifts to send to them. She spent countless hours volunteering for the organization during 2020, drawing colored pencil portraits of people she’s never met.

For more than 30 years, Tanasse worked as an art teacher in the Snohomish School District. It was there she first discovered the nonprofit, when she got her students started drawing portraits with the project.

The way it works is simple: groups of students ages 5-18 choose a country from a list the nonprofit provides, then they are sent photographs of children in that country to base their portraits on. After the portraits are completed, the nonprofit handles shipping them to their subjects in overseas destinations. According to the project’s website, its purpose is to foster intercultural understanding and kindness between children.

“It was really great, when I started it with the kids a few years ago, for them to see how other parts of the world live,” Tanasse said.

After retirement, Tanasse wanted to find a way to stay involved with the project.

She reached out to the nonprofit, and together they hatched a plan for her to draw photographs that children might find particularly challenging to draw. This could be because the subjects’ faces are obscured, blurry or captured in difficult angles to draw.

To-date, Tanasse has completed and sent off more than 50 portraits.

Cathy Tanasse uses a variety of colored pencils and colored backgrounds for her “Memory Project” portraits. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cathy Tanasse uses a variety of colored pencils and colored backgrounds for her “Memory Project” portraits. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Each one takes her about eight hours to finish.

Tanasse said she’s grateful for the project because she was looking for a way to draw portraits without selling or keeping them.

”It just is positive all the way around. I always feel good doing it — sometimes I’ll do it all day,” she said.

The rich colors and shading that bring the portraits to life are achieved after several layers of colored pencil, Tanasse’s favorite medium.

She loves the unique challenge posed by photorealism.

“There’s so much science in it,” Tanasse said. “When I don’t get a lot of information, I have to use what I know about the skull and the musculature.”

During her life, Tanasse has studied, taught and exhibited art nationally and internationally. She was a recipient of the Washington Art Education Association award for Secondary Art Educator of the Year as well as the WAEA Tribute Award for lifetime service.

She’s an Education Board member at Everett’s Schack Art Center, where she also teaches classes.

Starting June 2, Tanasse will teach a six-week online portraiture class open to students ages 15-and-up. The class will meld lessons about how to understand and draw facial structure anatomy with media experimentation, according to its description.

Schack Education Director Radle Alburn said Tanasse plays an important role in the center’s education programs.

“She’s just so creative, giving and supportive. It’s been fantastic,” Alburn said. “We couldn’t do the work we do here in education without her on our committee.”

Cathy Tanasse works on a portrait for the “Memory Project” at her home March 19 in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cathy Tanasse works on a portrait for the “Memory Project” at her home March 19 in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tanasse has made more portraits the past year than any other volunteer artist at The Memory Project, according to the organization’s director, Ben Schumaker.

The retired teacher said her volunteer work with the project is a perfect fit at this stage in her artistic journey.

“It’s funny how your relationship with art changes over the years,” Tanasse said. “It’s always been there, but now it’s so nice to be able to just do it … teach it without having to grade it, make it without having to sell it.”

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen

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