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Art classes bring Ireland to Woodlawn

Edmund Sullivan needed some way to celebrate his love for Irish art, and share that love with others, but do it all here in the Bronx. He found Martin O’Grady.

O’Grady, 78, was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, before coming to the Bronx in 1959, where he began a plumbing business. He has done well, but O’Grady wanted to do more, so he took the money from his business and put it into the arts by opening up his house at 279 E. 236th Street in Woodlawn for a summer arts program open to anyone with an interest in working hard to learn Irish music, dance, or art.

“I guess I’m a philanthropist,” he said humbly. “I took this chance and so far it’s working out. I dreamed of jump-starting a place for music, dance, and art several years ago, and it worked.”

Most of the teachers at the arthouse are from P.S. 19, so they’re free during the summer. “They all have keys and they come in any time they want,” said O’Grady. “If someone feels bored at home and they want to come in and do artwork, they can. The only thing I don’t allow is drinking inside.”

O’Grady’s wife is a visual artist, and he believes that Woodlawn is more of an artist community than many people realize.

But it’s education that he sees flaws in, and wishes to address with his art house. “I went around all the Bronx and watched what happened, and I didn’t see enough schools opening up or places for music and art classes. The arts are down,” he lamented. The classes and upkeep of the property cost O’Grady about $36,000 a year, a bill he is footing with his three pension checks — one for social security, one from England, and one from Ireland.

O’Grady first bought the house 15 years ago, and in the few years since he began renting it out, it has become a destination for almost 200 aspiring artists of all ages to come and focus on their craft. “A lot of our students are venturing out on moonlight jobs now,” said O’Grady with pride. “We’re beginning to get recognition from places not just outside the Bronx, but outside New York.”

Members of the school have now performed all over the country and at competitions in Manhattan at the Metropolitan, and at times have come in first. In addition, the house has attracted accomplished artists as teachers, including Edmund Sullivan, who teaches painting.

Sullivan’s story, like O’Grady’s, is one of love and personal struggle. He said that at first, as a young man, he had little interest in his Irish heritage. Then, after completing a stint in the Marine Corp and nearly becoming a police officer, “I changed my mind. I thought, do I really want to be chasing kids in alleys at age 35?” Instead, he wanted to teach people to paint in the Irish tradition. “I spent a long period where I lived in a little one-car garage, no heat, and I learned how to sew, I painted, didn’t really make a nickel for five years. But I was brutally happy,” he said. Teaching classes at O’Grady’s arthouse, he said, has increased his happiness further. Now he is able to share his love and knowledge of Irish painting with others.

“I always wanted to teach the Irish how to paint, and I’ve always tried to get my friends from here to come paint with me in Ireland. And then a friend of mine called and introduced me to Theresa Matheson, an Irish immigrant, and I immediately responded to her. She’s just pure. One day she said, ‘Hey, would you like to go down to Martin’s music house and teach people to paint?’ That was it, before I knew it we set up three classes, we had 35 people.”

Sullivan only teaches people who have at least some sort of personal connection to Ireland, though they need not be Irish.

“I’m training them, not just in craftsmanship, but in their souls, to feel and love Ireland through painting,” he said. One of the students, Jerry McGann, travels up to the Bronx from Queens just to take Sullivan’s class.

Matheson, meanwhile, teaches jewelry at the house. “Originally I was going to teach oil painting because I have taught art classes before,” she said, “but once I met Edmund and saw his work, I realized there was no way in the world I was qualified to teach art! So I ended up joining his class.”

Matheson said that being a teacher and student simultaneously gives her a new depth of understanding.

“Art and music is a life saver. It saves people’s lives and gives them an identity,” she said.

In the meantime, O’Grady constantly worries that Sullivan and the other teachers of art, dance and music, a list that includes prominent musician Kathleen Collins, piper Jerry O’Sullivan, and others, will have to put aside this dream gig in the event that he is no longer around.

“If I die, there is a major problem with how the place could keep running,” he said. “I am looking for other options.” As if maintaining the Bronx facility isn’t enough, he also wants to begin doing the same thing in Queens.

“I’m trying to find some nonprofits to help us out,” he said.Matheson isn’t concerned about whether the Queens idea will work or not.“When you plant a seed, it will grow,” she said. “So the fact is, it’s going to happen.”

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