High School Students Shine at Congressional Art Show

Rep. Barbara Comstock’s art competition at VSTC exhibits almost 300 pieces from Virginia's 10th District.

2016 Congressional Art Competition
Almost 300 pieces were on display at GW's VSTC for Rep. Barbara Comstock's congressional art competition. (William Atkins/GW Today)
May 03, 2016

By Tamara Jones

The portrait of the artist as a (shy) young man was so true-to-life that the “best in show” very nearly didn’t show at all Monday night at the 2016 Congressional Art Competition.

The teenager grapevine went into high alert when Dominion High School art teacher Shannon Freeman sent a group message to her art class from the event at the George Washington University’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus, asking for student Rafy Aguilar’s phone number.

Watching television at home in Sterling, Mr. Aguilar felt his heart race when texts from his classmates starting pinging. Dude, what’d you do? He answered his teacher’s call with trepidation.

“He thought he was in trouble,” Ms. Freeman said. Instead, she asked the quiet, unassuming senior if he were busy.

“Why?” he asked, still baffled.

“Because you won the art show!” his teacher said.  “Can you get here?”

Mr. Aguilar threw on a blue bow tie, grabbed his parents and rushed from their Sterling home to Ashburn, where his Cubist-inspired painting in vivid primary colors was displayed on an easel along with 264 other pieces of art by high school students from across Virginia’s sprawling 10th Congressional District.

Mr. Aguilar’s rendering of himself, peering out at the world from behind a red shirt pulled halfway up his face, will hang in the Capitol for a year alongside the winning entry from other Congressional districts. It was his first attempt using acrylics, and Ms. Freeman recounted watching her student grow as he “kept coming back to it to add more layers.”

“I’ll be able to see it every day as I walk to my office,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va), who organized the exhibit and told the students gathered that their district boasted one of the highest participation rates in the country, with around 100 more entries this year than last. 

“I can’t tell you the number of students, faculty and staff members who have come up to me praising your art this past month and asking if we could make it part of a permanent collection,” said VSTC and College of Professional Studies Dean Ali Eskandarian of the makeshift gallery that adorned the walls of Enterprise Hall leading up to the award ceremony.

Students competed across seven categories–painting, drawing, photography, collage, printmaking, mixed-media and computer-generated art.

Guest speaker Susan McElhinny, photo editor of the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick magazine, said she was awestruck by “the sophistication, the concept, the mediums, the execution and the emotional depth” of the students’ pieces.

She said she found keen observation in the landscapes of “starry nights, fog, snow, rain and sunflowers,” tenderness in “your conversation with a pineapple,” isolation in the collage of  “a delicate ice queen trapped in her block below the sea.”

Riverside High School sophomore Melissa Swanchara invited contemplation with her pencil drawing of a giant red octopus breaking into a laundry room with red roses, while Heritage High School senior Amanda Booth’s honorable mention in mixed-media depicted a bullet’s blood-spattered trajectory through a young black man’s head, emerging out the other side as a rainbow flag bearing the message Stop Resisting. Ms. Booth also took third-place in painting for her profile of a grey-whiskered man.

“This is not superficial work,” Ms. McElhinny said. “It is said that art enables us to find ourselves, and lose ourselves at the same time. Henri Matisse said creativity takes courage, and it’s seen in abundance here.”

Mr. Aguilar, who said he found inspiration for his piece from a Japanese artist online, plans to attend community college and study graphic design.