by Dave Oberhelman
Drew Duffy doesn’t consider himself an artist — or a vexillologist — but his flag design may wind up being seen by millions.
The Glenbrook South junior is among six finalists from throughout Cook County in a competition for high school-aged students to create the next county flag.
“The prospect of having my flag flying over Daley Plaza and all over Cook County is just super-amazing to think about,” Duffy said.
Duffy’s design, the “I Will Banner” aided and tweaked by Cook County graphic designer Martin Burciaga, one of the contest’s team of mentors, was among 297 initial submissions representing 40 high schools.
Maine East senior Alex Tomy is another finalist, joining Duffy and students from Oak Park-River Forest, the Ray Graham Training Center and student duos from Evanston and Disney Magnet, and Shepard and Providence-St. Mel.
“I wasn’t expecting to get this far, so it’s very cool to see. I was looking at some of the designs and, honestly, I thought they were better than my entry,” Tomy said.
As with Duffy’s “I Will” flag, Tomy and mentor Denny Liu’s design of Tomy’s “Harmony” flag answered what the 11-member Flag Advisory Panel was seeking.
“The whole purpose of this was to show the diversity and unity of Cook County,” said Cook County 14th District Commissioner Scott Britton, the panel co-chair along with Cook County Historian Matthew DeLeon.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to create the panel and commission design of a new flag on Dec. 19, 2019. The board was looking ahead to the county’s 190th anniversary of its founding on Jan. 15, 2021, as well as its 2031 sesquicentennial.
“The thought was, do it little early,” said Britton, though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily disrupted the timeline.
A flag man since he was a little boy and currently a member of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which deals in the scientific study of flags, Britton said contestants were schooled in NAVA’s guidance of creating a simple yet distinctive and memorable design using two or three main colors and incorporating aspects of Cook County’s mission and institutions.
The Flag Advisory Panel scored submissions on a rubric that graded composition, elements representing the county’s mission, and students’ description and title of their flag.
The current Cook County flag — its only flag since its 1961 creation — might not grade that highly. It consists of a county shield and the words, “Cook County” on a white field. The contest website, anewflagforcookcounty.com, said vexillologists describe it as “a seal on a bedsheet.”
Duffy and Tomy gave an extraordinary amount of thought to their designs.
Starting with colored pencils at his kitchen table, Duffy’s “I Will” theme emerged after researching Chicago sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, and by Jacob Henrik Gerhard Fjelde from a Charles Holloway design for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Incorporating the “Y” common in Chicago signage and representing the “merging of north, south and main branches of the Chicago River at Wolf Point,” Duffy said, his use of symbols, colors and design encompasses facets such as Cook County Forest Preserves, social and political change, and Chicago’s importance to economic development.
After the Flag Advisory Panel culled the contestants to 23 semifinalist teams, they were assigned a design mentor to hone their ideas.
Duffy, a teenage Walter Mitty who is an all-conference wrestler and football player at Glenbrook South, planned a rally that helped retain Glenview’s Fire Station 13, and on March 17 was elected his school’s student body president for 2022-23, doesn’t quite look at himself as an “artist.”
“I think that might be a little bit of an unfair label to the dedicated artists out there, but I’ve always been interested in it,” he said.
It’s closer to Tomy’s wheelhouse as president of Maine East’s Graphic Arts Club and, from among 44,000 qualifiers, runner-up in the 2021 Adobe Certified Associate U.S. National Online Championship.
“I had elements of the police force, elements of medicine, of Chicago since it’s such a major city, the highways, the forest preserves,” Tomy said. “I felt like a lot of things came together to create one nice piece. A lot of cool things were coming in, so I thought I’d name it ‘Harmony.'”
He credited not only the county’s design mentors for their help and inspiration but also his mother, Cisy John, and Maine East career and technical education instructor Andrew Schneider.
Britton said the Cook County Board’s Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee will discuss the final six flags in early April, with board President Toni Preckwinkle announcing the winner in May or June.
“Whoever wins,” Tomy said, “I hope they realize how big an accomplishment it is, because they’re creating something that will last generations.”