Portrait of a Soul Celebrates a Child's Inner Beauty

Check out a full gallery of images from the artists and the unveiling below!

Photography by Daniel Smyth

It started with a trip to Philadelphia to learn more about a project to bring positivity and joy into the lives of children with craniofacial conditions. During the drive home, Lee and Sue Schaefer knew in their hearts that they wanted to bring the program to Cincinnati – they just had to figure out how.

A short time later, Portrait of a Soul was born. The nonprofit organization is similar to its predecessor in Philadelphia. “Children with craniofacial conditions are kind of the forgotten children,” says Lee. “ They get made fun of for looking different, and they’re often forgotten.” But Lee and Sue knew they couldn’t let that continue.

Portrait of a Soul pairs a professional artist with a child referred to the program by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and the artist paints the child’s portrait. This is a long process of sketches, photographs and meetings between the child and the artist, but it’s time well spent for both families and artists. Once the portrait is completed, Lee says it’s the image of the child as they are.

The participating children, ages 4 to 24, have a wide range of different craniofacial conditions and come from many walks of life. One of the nonprofit’s goals is to bring awareness to the children and their conditions, while providing them with a self-esteem and confidence boost – hand-painted portraits used to be just for royalty, after all.

“We met with each family and sat down with them to get to know them,” says Sue. “And we did the same with every artist we came across. Then we worked to pair the artists and families in the best combinations possible.” The couple also handpicked artists throughout the process, turning away many that they felt weren’t in it for the right reasons.

“Every artist is commissioned by the organization,” says Lee. “So we wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a job to them. They had to have the heart for the program, because it’s all about these children and their families.”

In addition, each artist had to be a professional who was earning a living through or consistently working in their medium. This meticulous audition effectively weeded out people applying for the paycheck. It also provided Portrait of a Soul with a solid base of artists who have a passion for the cause.

“These artists have been touched by the program as much as we have,” says Lee. “One of them came to me after working with the family he was painting and told me the whole process has made him a better father, a better husband and a better human being.” According to Lee, artists from across the country are clamoring to be involved, which has inspired him to consider bringing the organization to other cities.

One of the most important factors in expanding the organization is the close relationship Portrait of a Soul must have with a local hospital that treats children for craniofacial conditions. Fortunately, there’s been no shortage of support from the Division of Plastic Surgery and Craniofacial Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Our current artists want more children to work with, and the artists on the waiting lists are very anxious to get involved,” says Sue.

In the end, it’s all about the kids. Each painting is intended to show the inner beauty of each child while helping them to see their own outer beauty as well.

The first round of paintings went on display June 12 at the Eisele Gallery of Fine Art. Prior to the ceremonial unveiling, neither parents nor children had laid eyes on the completed pieces, making the evening a touching and emotional one.