Erin Welsh has been helping educate local youth in creating art for nearly two decades. This month, they’ll be showing off some of their work at the Art Alliance Gallery Downtown.
Welsh, who holds a BFA in painting and drawing and a bachelor’s degree in art education from Penn State, recently finished her third year teaching at Bellefonte Area High School after several years in Mifflin County.
Her hope as a teacher is that she can help her students through an often tough part of growing up while fostering an understanding and appreciation of art.
“When you teach kids, whether you teach them in kindergarten or middle school or high school, I think you want them to understand why art is important and to be able to think about it, process it, want to look at it,” Welsh says. “[You want them to] want to go to an art museum and have a little better understanding about the artist who’s making the still-life. ‘Man, that looks pretty wicked,’ but think about all the work that went behind it and practice – and now you have done a still-life too. Just take that with them.”
Welsh hopes her students can use their experiences making art as practice for problem-solving and building stick-to-itiveness.
Her own experiences in high school are part of what inspired Welsh to be an art teacher.
“(High school) is a hard time; I hated high school. I think that’s why I teach in a high school, because I remember all this ‘ick’ about it and I want to help kids through that,” she says. “It’s not an easy time and I think that’s one of the many reasons why I like it, just to help kids out. Life can be great and you can still make great stuff.”
The Square Show
As a final project, Welsh’s students are instructed to create at least one 6-inch-by-6-inch artwork in any media. Every artist can donate up to five finished pieces and have them shown in the Art Alliance of Central PA’s Square Show, one of the alliance’s biggest fundraisers. The show gives the students the chance to have their artwork displayed – and possibly purchased.
The project began in the first year of the Square Show in 2017. The fundraiser’s chairman, Jim Bright – a former Mifflin County art teacher and co-worker of Welsh and Bellefonte Area High School’s other art teacher, Heather Fry, during their time in Mifflin – reached out to them with the idea.
“He’s awesome at reaching out to young people like high school students and wanting to include them in the art community, which is really nice,” Welsh says. “He invited our students to participate in the Square Show. I sort of made that into the final assignment for them.”
The artwork submitted comes in a variety of media – from pastel, oil, and acrylic to wood relief, melted glass, ceramics, and more. The artwork is signed only on the back to add an element of anonymity to each piece and have the pieces speak for themselves. Plus, every piece is priced at $25.
“It’s all original artwork and you don’t know who you’re getting it from; it’s all anonymous, which is kind of magic for my students,” says Welsh. “Some of (their submissions) are pretty strong works and people might not know they’re from a high school kid. I love that for my kids.”
“Some of the most interesting, unusual pieces each year come from the students,” Bright says. “I think sometimes when we get older, we fall into traps thinking about what a piece of art should look like. I think younger artists haven’t got into that rut yet and they make some terrific stuff. I’ve had a chance to see some of this year’s submissions and they’re just really exciting.”
The size of the Square Show pieces not only helps them stay affordable, but is a great way to practice and have fun.
“The little six-by-sixes, they’re just fun because it feels like play to me. I talk about that with my students; it can be playful,” Welsh says. “You can have a great time trying things out and if you don’t like it, it doesn’t have to be precious – paint over it, cut it out, get rid of that part, and do something else with it.”
An opening reception for the Square Show will take place Wednesday (July 10) from 6-9 p.m. at the Art Alliance Gallery Downtown, 123 S. Fraser St. in State College, just as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is opening. The show continues through July 28.
In 2018, more than 180 artists donated about 400 pieces to the fundraiser. Similar numbers, if not higher, are expected this year.
“As far as the Art Alliance is concerned, [the Square Show is] our biggest volume of artists, biggest volume of artwork, and our biggest number of sales,” Bright says.
“The student artists, many of them, get a kick out of the fact that their art is going to be viewed by so many Arts Festival visitors.”
Welsh is participating in several other fundraisers and shows this summer. Through August 13, Welsh will have new paintings up in a show at Foxdale Village titled LAYERS: Collage and Mixed Media.
For more work from the Bellefonte art department, visit @bahs_art on Instagram. For more of Welsh’s work, check out her Instagram account @lucianbird. For more on the Square Show, visit artalliancegallerydowntown.org
Tommy Butler is a freelance writer in State College.