ELLERY – An area resident has completed a two-year project spanning all regions of the globe.
Karen Walsh, a Bemus Point resident and 1973 graduate of Bemus Point Central School, has successfully returned all 20 painted portraits of American Field Service and Rotary International students who attended Maple Grove High School from 1958-77 to their respective subjects and their families decades after the students left the Bemus Point district.
Over the duration of the nearly two-decade span of time in which Maple Grove hosted foreign exchange students annually, a portrait was painted of nearly every exchange student by renowned and accomplished local artist Lurabel Colburn. The paintings were done as part of her adult education classes, in which the students were used as models for portraiture technique lessons.
For several years, the portraits had been on display in Maple Grove’s library where, as a student, Walsh first became aware of their existence. Also included in the menagerie was a portrait of A.J. Sykes, former Maple Grove principal, and a more recent portrait of a 2006 exchange student, Nienke Morije Vriesema, which was painted by another student. While attending Maple Grove, Walsh befriended two of the exchange students – Michiko “Kishi” Tomotsune, 1972 AFS exchange student from Japan, and Alice Weiler, 1973 AFS exchange student from Switzerland – and would occasionally bring them to the school in later years, when they would make return visits to the area, to show them their portraits.
Walsh recovered the portraits in 2011, upon discovering that they had been taken down from display and placed in storage – where they had been altered by time and some had sustained minor water and mildew damage. She offered Tomotsune’s and Weiler’s portraits to them and, after reframing and refurbishing the others, Walsh took it upon herself to return the remaining portraits to their subjects.
“Never could I have imagined, all these years later, that I would be involved in a major project involving these very portraits in an international adventure that has become so important to me, as well as to many others around the globe,” she said previously. “The project has taken on a life of its own, which I continue to follow faithfully into the unknown.”
She added: “Many have marveled at this undertaking with lofty praise, but I am truly only the architect of the project. It has been as much, or perhaps more, of a blessing for me as it has been for these AFS students. Literally hundreds of people around the world have already been touched by this project, even those who have only heard of it.”
A RIPPLE EFFECT
At the time Walsh’s project – which she dubbed “Portraits of Peace” – was first reported in the June 30, 2013, edition of The Post-Journal, 13 of the 20 original portraits had been returned, and the names of the remaining seven exchange students she had yet to locate were published. They included: Tore Aune, 1960, from Norway; Oswald Struder and Eduardo Cosin, 1964, from Switzerland and Spain, respectively; Wim Van der Minne, 1971, from the Netherlands; Diana Gibbons, 1972, from New Zealand; Janet Comley, 1974, from Australia; Carlos Perez, 1975, from Colombia; and an unidentified blonde female, 1985. Nienke Morije Vriesema, 2006, from the Netherlands was also included in the search.
With the aid of the published article, Walsh soon made progress in quick succession. Over the remainder of 2013, through various methods of research and communication, she was able to make contact with five of the students and return their portraits accordingly.
Earlier this year, Walsh found further success in identifying the previously unidentified 1985 foreign exchange student as Ann Ederstein from Sweden – returning her portrait in February. Later that month, she was also able to reach the family of Carlos Perez, though they had lost contact with him more than 20 years ago, and return his portrait to them in April.
“That was probably the most powerful of all the returns, because the parents are still alive and they don’t know what’s happened to their son,” she said. “So they were so grateful to get this portrait. They said it was like having a little piece of their son back.”
Following the return of Perez’ portrait, Walsh said the initial project of returning the portraits was completed.
“It’s just really extraordinary,” she said. “I never dreamed that I would find all of the subjects. I knew I would find some, but I figured I would be happy to find half or maybe a little more because of the age of these portraits. I had to correspond and talk with a lot of people, look in a lot of different areas and network with a lot of people and just have faith that it would all turn out alright in the end; and it has.”
Walsh’s portrait project has brought many people and families, from multiple generations, together. This renewed connection has put several back in touch with members of their host families, with whom they had lost contact over the decades – a trend that she expects will continue in the coming years.
“I anticipate that, as class reunions occur, many of these other students will be called back to rediscover and reconnect; and I’m inviting them to do so,” she said.
Walsh provided tangible evidence of this as she hosted Janet Comley, now Janet Comley Turnbull, at her house earlier this month. She had made contact with Turnbull, who now lives in Perth, Australia, last summer and her portrait was returned. Turnbull visited the Bemus Point area for the first time since graduating from Maple Grove to celebrate her 40-year class reunion, taking in a tour of the Maple Grove building in the process.
“All of us were so happy to reconnect and see each other,” Turnbull said. “And I think what was significant in those years gone by is that, for many of us (exchange students), our time (in America) was our first interaction with someone from another culture in a meaningful way. And it does make you stop and think that the world is just one big brotherhood.”
Walsh added that the exchange students themselves had an impact on their fellow Maple Grove students, as well.
“I think Jan has found that she really touched a lot of peoples’ lives, as many of our exchange students do,” she said. “People that she didn’t even realize knew her were so elated at seeing her.”
American Field Service was one of the first exchange programs, along with the Rotary Youth Exchange, to place foreign students in U.S. secondary schools. The first AFS and Rotary students are now between the ages of 50 and 70, and have gone on to serve society in many different ways.
Among the subjects painted by Colburn, the students have become: educators from kindergarten through university levels, a restaurateur, a humanitarian aid worker and volunteer, a Standards board director of international affairs, a diplomat, a U.N. representative, a World Bank officer, an architect, an electrical engineer, the Hippodrome Race Track general director of television, physicians and medical researchers, a manager of coffee processing plants and coffee farms, a consumer affairs specialist and a senior director of research in microsystems and nano-electronics.
Turnbull attributed some of the characteristics that allowed her to be involved with a variety of Australian government organizations to her time spent at Maple Grove.
“I think studying here for that year did give me a much wider perspective on the world,” Turnbull said. “And when I look back on this very shy little farm girl coming (to America) from Victoria, it gave me the confidence to go on to do public relations in very major projects in Australia. And it gave me the love of meeting people, as well.”