Each year, Members of the House of Representatives encourage the creativity and artistic abilities of their high school constituents by selecting an artwork from each district to be displayed for one year in the Cannon Tunnel in Washington, DC. This passageway is one of the prime connections between the United States Capitol and the Cannon House Office Building, and millions travel through it each year. This year, 407 Members of Congress are displaying pieces of artwork from their Districts.
On Wednesday, June 20, 2012, the Congressional Institute and the Co-Chairs welcomed the winners and their families to a reception at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington. This was the culmination of the Congressional Art Competition, allowing the winners to see their art hanging in DC. To make this possible, Southwest Airlines generously provided round-trip tickets to the winner and a guest if their Congressional District lay within 200 miles of an airport the company serves. Since so many winners traveled to Washington, there are two receptions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Students from Alabama-Massachusetts were invited to the morning session and students from Michigan-Wyoming were invited to attend in the afternoon.
Each reception began with either breakfast or lunch, allowing the winners to meet other guests from around the country. A program of speakers followed in the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium. “We could not be happier to recognize your talents and contributions to American culture”, Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, said. Representative Griffin and Representative Hansen Clarke also greeted the winners and congratulated them on their achievement. “Your work as an artist will not only help you develop to your fullest potential: It will help make the world a better place to live”, Representative Clarke told the winners at the afternoon session.
In addition to the Co-Chairs, private sponsors of the Congressional Institute addressed the visitors. Monica del Rio spoke on behalf of Southwest Airlines. Cecilia Marshall, the Director of Regional Recruitment for the Savannah College of Art and Design, informed the students of the school’s offer of a scholarship to any winner who applies, is accepted, and enrolls there. At each session, a professional artist, invited by one of the Co-Chairs, spoke about his or her own work and offered the students advice and encouragement. The guests also viewed a slideshow of the winning artwork as well.
Morning Artist Workshop
The Congressional Art Competition winners who traveled to DC for the morning reception received plenty of praise, but also a warning: “It’s a difficult path to walk, the artist’s path”, advised Mitchell Breitweiser, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based artist for Marvel Comics and the guest speaker at the reception.Although he draws iconic comic book figures like Captain America for a living, when you hear him tell his life’s story, it is obvious that it would have been far easier for him to fail in his profession.
Mr. Breitweiser’s preparation for his career as an artist-his “artist’s journey,” as he calls it-began when he was very young. He loved school because his second grade teacher provided time to draw and write stories each day. She noticed his unusually creative abilities and told his parents that he would grow up to be either a writer or an artist. Either craft probably didn’t thrill them, he conceded, yet they still fostered his abilities anyway. Without their support, he might never have found his love for comic books. They gave him his first, a book featuring Spiderman. “When Dad brought home that comic book, everything changed for me”, he recalled. “They were, of course, a little bit wary of my love of comic books. I’m sure they thought it was a passing interest, but for me it was absolutely captivating.”
He might have been captivated, but that was not sufficient for a career as a comic book artist. One of his college mentors was blunt with him: “Every year there are two or three of you-the one that wants to do this. For my entire 20-year history as a professor, I’ve actually had exactly zero go on to do this as a living”, his professor advised. This advice-expressed “out of love”, Mr. Breitweiser said-just steeled him to endure. “I wasn’t actually extraordinarily talented; I was just actually extraordinarily stubborn, I think, more than anything else…But I let the passion take over, and the stubbornness.”
Mr. Breitweiser might have been stubborn, but his professor was wise. “I thought for sure I was good enough to make it right out of college. Boy, I was completely wrong.” His first few years could have been taken from a clichéd movie script. A small-town Arkansan moves to to New York City to try and make it big, even though he had never been north of Washington, DC, before. “I had to spend a lot more time serving coffee and lattes than I wanted to…I collected a very impressive stack of rejection letters”, he recalled.
The stack of rejection letters was like a “trophy” for him. Failure, however, was hard won. He says it took him about six years before he was truly successful. “I had to work a lot harder out of school, but I am so much the better for it.”
At one point, he even took about a year off to play music in Nashville. The hiatus was a poor choice, but as he describes it, a miracle happened: his car was totaled. He took the insurance money back to New York and allowed himself a final six months to pursue a career illustrating comic books. Relying on an acquaintance at Marvel Comics, he was able to slip into their offices and go door to door providing samples of his work to editors. Some would look at his work, critique it, and then he would come back to showcase his improvements every week. Long after his money ran out, and just before his six months was up, Marvel provided him a paying job.
In light of his long-coming success, Mr. Breitweiser offered this to the Congressional Art Competition winners: If “things aren’t clicking right away for you, just stick it through, just push it through.”
And while he himself counseled the students, Mr. Breitweiser reflected on the importance of mentors: “You are going to meet your mentors. And you are going to meet those that are going to hold you back and give you some warnings…Learn from these mentors, and learn from the ones that are holding you back because those that are giving you the warnings are usually doing it out of a sense of caution or love for you.”Those who give hard advice help the artist grow the most. He suggested that the young submit their work to many experienced artists for their critiques. It’s easy to brush off one person’s criticism, but “if five people tell you your hands are wrong, then there’s probably something wrong with the hands you’re drawing…There’s something not in harmony with your work if people keep pointing it out.” Young artists should “work on those things and have a thick skin about it.”
In addition to receiving the guidance of older artists, students should be broadly educated. Although he draws comic books, Mr. Breitweiser has had training in other media, like painting. He noted that he has received praise for his “painterly” style, which he acquired from learning how to paint still lifes, landscapes, and the like. On the other hand, it is readily apparent when a student has imitated only a handful of artists.
During the question-and-answer session, Mr. Breitweiser’s wife Elizabeth, who is also a comic book artist, shared her thoughts on education as well. A college degree is not necessary but she found college education and art classes were “invaluable”. She thinks she has been successful because these courses have taught her basic principles, like color theory and composition, which she has been able to use creatively while working with modern technology like Photoshop. “There’s a lot of color artists…who know nothing about color theory. They know how to use Photoshop-and they abuse it.” If you don’t know the basics, “you can’t do anything”, she concluded. Formal education is important, but she suggested, “you really learn the most when put yourself out there.” She really internalized the lessons she learned when she herself got her first job as a teacher, and then after landing a position with Marvel.
Although the Breitweisers spoke mostly about their artistic training, Mr. Breitweiser urged them to study other subjects as well. “Learn other things”, he said. “Art is one of those professions that absorbs everything else around it…Your brain soaks it all up and your hand communicates it, interprets it.” Science, philosophy, and literature are fertile grounds for artistic inspiration. “Find out what else inspires you, because that’s what inspires your work”, he urged.
For Mr. Breitweiser, his inspiration has led to liberation as an artist: “You can create magnificent things from nothing…It is just extremely limitless in what you can do. And you sort of invent your own life. It’s a great freedom.”
Afternoon Artist Workshop
“Art changes lives” was the simple message that Jocelyn Rainey printed on a PowerPoint slide she showed to Congressional Art Competition winners who attended the afternoon reception.
Coming from an artist and art teacher, it could be taken as a self-important platitude. Ms. Rainey has a story to make that statement mean something.
Ms. Rainey is now a professional artist; an art instructor; and the founder and director of Finding Mona Lisa: Urban Students Become Global Scholars, an initiative to bring inner-city students to international cultural centers, but her life could have been very different. “I didn’t know that art would change my life in high school”, she says. “I learned that I would be an artist through a dream.” Following a grave gunshot-wound to the neck, she took a job mowing grass in public parks in Detroit, Michigan. There’s nothing wrong with cutting grass, she observed, but she began to ask God why He preserved her life-was it really to tend landscapes? She then received her answer: “I started to dream that I was an artist. I started to dream that I was painting in front of what I know now as an easel…It was a recurring dream.”
Ms. Rainey, however, was a total novice. She had a number of failed attempts at enrolling at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. At one point, her admissions officer asked her to bring in her portfolio, so she went to a supply store to purchase one. When she brought it back, the officer asked where all her work was! Ms. Rainey’s fifth application was successful. “On that last time, I had to really make [the admissions officer] understand that this was my destiny…Somehow, through some type of prayer, she said okay, “Do you think you can graduate?'”
She knew she could graduate, but it would take Ms. Rainey a lot of work to get there. All the other students, it seemed, had already studied art before. She confided to her mother that she thought her dream was wrong. Her mother advised her that if the professors were true teachers, they would spend the time and effort to instruct her how to be a great artist. So Ms. Rainey introduced herself to a professor to ask for extra help. “She started to make me think my art was important, so I started to practice and practice and practice”, she recalled.
Ms. Rainey eventually pulled through, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art. She went on to study for a master’s degree as well. Towards the end of her degree program in 1998, she pleaded with God again. She needed a job and money. A local high school offered her a position as their first art and art history teacher. “I never taught high school, but I mean, how bad could it be? I went to school. So I took the job, not knowing that it was an all-boys, alternative school. Football players. Basketball players. Track stars. And I’m going to go in there and teach them that art is going to change their lives.”
Art didn’t change their lives immediately. “We get into the classes and they don’t want any of that…We fought and fought and fought.” She made them-and the school administration-take her classes seriously. She informed the administration that the students would be required to pass her class to graduate. Despite the opposition, Ms. Rainey won, and her students’ skills improved. “They created artwork. They created Monets. They created Picassos.”
Ms. Rainey’s initial successes then gradually transformed into greater ones. “One day, I just wondered, would my students ever see this artwork in person? Would they ever deal with the culture, or embrace the culture, or ever know about the culture this artwork lives? Maybe they won’t; but maybe they will. But I’m going to try to make that happen now.” She was going to bring her students all the way to Paris, France, so they could find the Mona Lisa.
Travelling to France was the culmination of a long preparatory process. Before finding the Mona Lisa, they had to find money. They sold artwork, held fundraisers, solicited from family and church groups. Ms. Rainey’s mailman even slipped her some money. “Anything that somebody gives you is powerful because they want you to succeed. They want to see you go on this trip”, she admonished her students. In turn, Ms. Rainey’s students expressed gratitude for the community’s support completing service projects. “We didn’t want to take anything for granted”, Ms. Rainey said, so they prepared themselves academically as well. They took art, writing, and French language and culture classes. Students were also required to keep both written and photographic journals.
When Ms. Rainey and her students finally travelled to Paris in 2007, they found the Mona Lisa. “We get to the Louvre: The did not believe it was the Mona Lisa because it was too small…They said that can’t be it, because the Mona Lisa has to be larger than that, because it is bigger than life.”
The Mona Lisa proved so large that Ms. Rainey’s students were able to find it on the cover of a book in Japan they found on a different trip. No word on whether they found it in the other places she has taken her students: Barcelona, Spain; Cairo, Egypt; and Costa Rica. She plans to take the students to China on her next jaunt abroad. “We need to go around the world to see what everybody’s doing, what they’re eating, what they’re talking about.” In addition to expanding the destinations, she has also grown the pool of students she takes. Originally restricted to students from Loyola High School-Detroit, where she first taught, she now chaperones students from any school in Detroit. Not only do they find Mona Lisa, they bring her back too: Ms. Rainey has been able to share her experiences at a number of speaking engagements, including the TEDx Detroit 2010 conference.
The Congressional Art Competition winners are now like Ms. Rainey and her students. Did they ever expect to come to the Capitol to view their own work, she pointed out. The trip to DC, however, is the beginning of their journey. “You are very courageous to put your artwork out where the whole world can see it”, she congratulated the winners. “Your art will be seen by people that will never see you. Your art will go places you will never go…Your art is going to travel all types of places. The world is waiting. We love art, right?”
For photos from the reception, please click here. Video clips of the morning and afternoon programs are available as well.
Click on a state or territory below to view thewinning entries from each district. Photographs of the winning pieces are also on display on the U.S. House of Representatives website. The House website receives nearly eight million visitors each year, making the works some of the most widely viewed contemporary art in the country.