Break Out the Crayons and Paint Brushes, Kids! It’s an Irish Art Contest

St. Patrick’s month will be a relatively subdued affair at The Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center (the Irish Center) in Mount Airy, which is usually jammed with people, young and old, making merry after the Philly parade and again on St. Patrick‘s Day itself. Not this year.

So what to do, what to do …

After giving it a bit of thought, the folks at the Irish Center came up with an idea: an art contest for wee ones up to high school age. The contest also has the advantage of continuing an initiative started before the pandemic, making the Irish Center a more attractive destination for the center’s next generation.

The subject of the art contest: “What Does Being Irish Mean to You?”

With the exception of very small gatherings and The Commodore, the center’s restaurant, the place is closed for business. “But when we were open, we were trying to come up with some ideas that would attract the younger generation, says Lisa Maloney, Irish Center board member and vice president. “We did that with a middle school dance. And we’ve actually had a number of high schoolers helping during this COVID period with the renovation of the library, helping us move books and things like that, because we’ve been wanting to engage them and have conversations with them, meaning the younger generation.”

The center’s board has been conducting informal surveys within that age group and their parents to see what they’re interested in so that when it’s safe to gather again, there will be youth-oriented events hosted there.

Board members are looking for other ideas that will engage the under-21 crowd. “Part of it is learning about the Irish culture,” says Maloney. “But a lot of it is social, too. We want to have that generation know each other. We want to know, what could the Irish Center do for them.”

There’s already programming at the Irish Center geared toward young musicians. That will obviously continue when they get the all-clear. And the Philadelphia Ceili Group had been hosting events, hoping to involve young people in Irish dance.

All very good in the before times, and with luck, they’ll be back again.

But in the meantime, there were discussions about what the Irish Center could do right now to keep young people engaged.

That’s where the art contest comes in.

“We are an arts and cultural center, and we asked ourselves, what could we do on the art side, appealing to kids who have an interest in the arts? So to that end, board members have been buying screens to display artwork—not necessarily children’s art, says Maloney. But this is where the idea stems from. “Kids and parents were saying that some of their children are very interested in art,” she says. “So we decided to have this art contest and tie it to St. Patrick’s Day or March. We want to ask what does ‘Irish’ mean? What does being Irish mean?”

For the benefit of kids who are interested, the contest is open to all media. Kids can use paints or crayons, perhaps do a collage—the possibilities are endless. “They can do whatever they want so long as they answer that question,” Maloney explains. “We thought it would be a nice way for kids to talk to their parents and grandparents about being Irish. Just start the creative juices flowing.”

All submissions will be shared on the center’s Facebook page. They’ll also be displayed on the new art screens in the center’s Fireside room and in the lobby for people visiting The Commodore for a meal. And for those who feel comfortable, parents and kids and members of the community can come in and see them. And when the center is open again, they’ll be moved into the Barry Room. The deadline for submissions is March 13. There are cash prizes: $100 for first place, $50 for second, and $25 for third.

So who has the best chance to win, given the age range? The quality of the submission counts, of course, but the primary criterion is how well the artists answer the question, what does Irish mean to me.

“So it doesn’t really matter whether you can draw a straight line or that type of thing,” says Maloney. “It’ll be based on whether you answer that question, and how well: how do you say it. It’s the visual representation of your answer to that question. We don’t want to discourage five-, six- or seven-year-olds from entering because they could easily win if their artistic answer is meaningful and profound. It doesn’t have to go into a museum of art. We really want to see kids thinking and answering that question. Younger kids may draw shamrocks and their grandmother. Older kids may showcase more artistic talent. But they’ll be equally judged based on how they answer that question.” 

Leading the judging panel will be art teacher Noreen McMenamin Diehl. And the invitation to submit is intended to be broad. For example, schoolteachers could disseminate the information and collect submissions from their classes.

Submissions may be mailed to the Irish Center or dropped off. The address is 6815 Emlen Street, Philadelphia, PA 19119.The contest is already underway. So break out your best ideas, kids, and share what being Irish means to you.

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