Artwork Turns Montgomery County Courthouse from Drab to Fab 

The corridors of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown are pretty much what a visitor would expect in a hall of justice: The walls are a nondescript yellow-beige backdrop to an array of name plates, signage, arrows and emergency lighting. It's a clean look, but absolutely without character or individuality.

The visual impact of the courthouse's public spaces can be, at best, utilitarian and at worst, imposing and unwelcoming. Within the courtrooms, it's not much better: The interior paint is a different color - gray - but the effect is similarly bleak.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Tornetta Carluccio looked at that view for day after day, sitting at her bench, wielding her gavel, listening to litigants. She found the sight to be a downer, but she really felt bad for her jurors who, in the name of civic duty, sat in a room with a curved wall that looked like a 1950s Cinemascope screen devoid of even a glimmer of Technicolor.

"Bright colors lift my spirit," says Judge Carluccio. "They make me happy." She sought a way to brighten things up in this space, to do something for the people of Montgomery County who come to the county seat to transact their legal business.

What she did was both inspired and inspiring.

Courthouse Transformation

In May 2013, Carluccio used her chair position on the Montgomery Bar Association's Community Outreach Committee to launch an art competition, in an effort to fill the courthouse walls with colorful treasures. To keep the focus local, artists were asked to depict "What I Love about Montgomery County," painting their favorite locations in a variety of media, including oil and watercolor. In an effort to motivate artists who are " in talent and imagination and who know the county very well," the age bracket was set at 55 and over.

Courting ArtThe idea gelled in Courting Art, a program that solicits original pieces, enables judging, awards prizes using sponsorship dollars and then hangs the art throughout the courthouse. The 2013 edition - yielding 104 entries, 40 pieces for display and four winners - exceeded everyone's colorful expectations: Carlucci's, her committee's, and even a few skeptics who were originally concerned that the decorations would comprise little more than stick figures.

"Entrants are asked to write a short paragraph about why they have chosen their favorite Montgomery County site," Carluccio says. "Some of these mini-essays are so heartfelt, so touching, that I can't help loving them."

She's right. "Sweet Face of Rolling Meadows" is a full-face portrait of a contented cow, richly rendered with enough detail that it would be no surprise at all if one of her lush lashes blinked to shoo away a pesky fly. Beneath it is this description from prize-winning painter Suzanne B. Shank: "What I love about Montgomery County: rolling meadows, fields of corn and grain, plus cows in pastures. That's what I love."

Sweet Face

Carluccio is all smiles as she whisks me up stairs and down to view the submissions. There are similarities within the subject matter (barns seem popular), but differing techniques and interpretations make each piece distinct. She clearly enjoys them all, particularly those on "winner's row." When pressed to name a favorite, Carluccio hesitates - she likes them all - before deciding on Margaret Dawson's watercolor "Norristown Rooftops." She explains: "It reminds me of Mary Poppins."

The most meaningful entry for Carluccio is a group interpretation of "Morris Arboretum" from the residents of Luther Woods Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The seniors worked together to create a multicolored garden in which the flowers pop off the canvas 3-D style. Wispy clouds and a brilliant sun fill the sky, and the floral display is arranged behind a fence of crayons, glued into place. "We felt so strongly about the creativity displayed with this entry," Carluccio explains, "that we presented a special ‘Courting Art Community Spirit Award' to this group, whose artists are between 80 and 101½ years old." The cash prize, which Carluccio made in person, is funding additional art programs at the center.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. "I go down every morning and talk to the jurors as they report in. And they mention the art, how much it brightens things up, how much more welcoming it is. The rest of the judiciary who work here like it as well, and their staffs do, too. So we're celebrating Montgomery County, we're spotlighting its creative seniors and we're dressing up the courthouse to make it more friendly - all without costing tax payers a single dime. What's not to like about that?"

Courting Art

The model is groundbreaking; Norristown is home to the only courthouse in the nation involved in an outreach of this kind. But other municipal centers are looking to emulate its success.

The accolades from last year's edition ensured that a 2014 version would follow. Courting Art 2014 opens May 8 to the public at the Fine Arts Center at Montgomery County Community College, running through June 12. This year's winners will then join the framed masterpieces already hanging in Norristown.

Carluccio sees the initiative as cumulative, adding pieces each year. "As I see it," she grins, "we have enough room here to support ten years' worth of shows." Her imagination is already toying with variations such as an all-student showing and even gathering a collection of artists to collaborate on a massive mural.

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Several of the artists' renderings were of historic homes that welcomed travelers in the long-ago days of Montgomery County's past. The county maintains an admirable sense of hospitality in welcoming visitors and making them feel comfortable. For a list of recommended accommodations, see our website.