A very precious project

Photographer and artist Melissa Knowles brings art to a classroom in Tanzania.

Student at Precious School. — Melissa Knowles

Art just isn’t part of the curriculum in Tanzanian schools, but Melissa Knowles made sure that students at Precious Project, a school and orphanage in the rural village of Nshupu, had an experience of a lifetime. And she hopes it’s just the first of more to come if funds can be raised to continue her work with the children. Knowles explained that her work is steeped in the belief of the importance of human contact, empathy, engagement, and creativity.
We can hear Knowles speak about her transformative three-week trip, engaging the children in art and creativity from a therapeutic perspective, in an upcoming talk at the West Tisbury library. While she undertook relatively simple projects with them because, as she says, “You can’t go over expecting all these complicated things that require different types of materials when you’ve got limited running water at the school.” The impact of the trip on Knowles was profound. “It was a wonderful experience. Tough at times, as you can imagine, because you’re in a devastatingly poor area.” In the talk, Knowles will emphasize the benefits she witnessed when introducing art to the teachers, staff, and the youth.
A consummate artist herself, photographing the children was an integral aspect of the trip, and she will be sharing her exquisite works at the library. Knowles explains, “The process between me and the children always has to be a beneficial one for the child. That child has to feel better from having been photographed. You develop a very strong relationship through photography with them. And over at Precious that’s so easy, because they love cameras and being photographed. There is absolutely no hesitation.”
In addition to her portraits, Knowles will introduce us to the children from the Precious school through her photography and the stories she will share. “I’ll show some of the children’s artwork, and I’ll talk about the need for art within that particular setting. You’re dealing with a vulnerable community, and an outdated education system by Western standards,” Knowles explains. “This school is slowly transforming through education consultants helping to make this school a sort of really wonderful experience for the children and their families.”
Hearing Knowles’ presentation will undoubtedly be a powerful experience as she carries the impact of the trip with her. She says, “I tell you, I’ve never met such children with unguarded affection. It’s a life of scarcity, and some of the kids come from very difficult backgrounds, and yet they are so open, they’re so warm. It was honestly just amazing. Incredibly humbling. It reminds you of what’s important. It was one of those sorts of experiences that you know is going to be an experience, but these children were just amazing. They really are.”
Knowles is going to donate the images to the Precious Project so that they can use them as part of their donor and sponsorship program, which is designed to help them feel connected to the school, the community, and those they’re supporting, and also to help attract new sponsors, because there are still children there who need sponsorship. Knowles will also curate an exhibition of the photographs this summer as part of a fundraising campaign that the co-founders, who have an Island home here, will hold over the summer.

Melissa Knowles will be speaking and showing photographs at 3 pm on Sunday, Feb. 2, at the West Tisbury library. Learn more about the Precious Project at preciousproject.org. You can see a show Knowles curated for Media Voices for Children titled “Our Children,” which showcases portraits of children worldwide and on the Vineyard by herself and U.R. (“Robin”) Romano, on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through Feb. 6.