Sometimes, when history calls, you decline it. 

Kaitlyn Cai of Scottsdale, Arizona, accidentally declined Rep. David Schweikert’s call twice when he buzzed to inform her that she had won the 2020 Congressional Art Competition for the state’s 6th Congressional District. So she learned about her prize via email instead. She was astounded.

“I toured the House of Representatives two years ago,” she said, “and being a small part of its rich history is something that I never expected.”

First held in 1982, the Congressional Art Competition is indeed a special part of House history. Every Member of the House may hold an art competition for high school students in their districts. The winning artworks are displayed for a year in an exhibit in the Cannon Tunnel, which connects the House of Representatives office buildings to the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress, congressional staff and thousands upon thousands of visitors view the exhibit each year as they pass between the buildings.

The Congressional Institute has sponsored the Congressional Art Competition since 2009. The Congressional Institute is a not-for-profit organization that helps Members of Congress better serve their constituents and helps constituents better understand the operations of the national legislature.

Kaitlyn won for Wild Eyes, a depiction of a panther staring directly at the viewer, surrounded by different sorts of leaves. Nature has interested her keenly since childhood—as a kid, she wanted to be an ecologist—and a picture of a panther inspired her to create this painting. The panther had “the most striking eyes,” she said. 

“Those eyes felt like they were staring deep into my soul, and I just had to paint them,” Kaitlyn said.

As much as Kaitlyn felt compelled to paint Wild Eyes, it almost didn’t come to be. She almost gave up when sketching the panther’s head. According to her, the shape of the panther’s head wasn’t right. But she kept at it and worked for three months on the painting. The hard work paid off, and she said she feels “just so honored” by the award.

“Art is about creativity, and that’s what makes it difficult,” Kaitlyn said. “There’s no formula for success—the only thing you can do is persist until you’ve created something that you are proud of.”

Creating a piece that an artist is proud of requires inspiration, and for this, Kaitlyn turns to Pinterest, a social media site where users see a wall of images that link to different websites. Pinterest images are often visually appealing and inspirational, and they help Kaitlyn tremendously, especially when creating art is difficult. “Having so many pictures at my fingertips to flip through really gets my creative juices flowing, even during artist’s block,” she said.

Kaitlyn says she prefers to work in oil paints, which she used to create Wild Eyes. Oil paints take a long time to dry, but it’s easiest to work with them. “The colors are so rich, and they blend beautifully,” she said.

Kaitlyn’s affinity for oil paints recalls the preferred medium of her favorite artist, the French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926). When she came to Washington, D.C., she even got to see his artwork in person, at the National Gallery of Art. “The softness and smokiness of his work is stunning,” Kaitlyn said. “I definitely do not paint in the same style, but I love looking at his work!”

Kaitlyn’s Wild Eyes may not be the only contribution she makes to the House of Representatives, since she’s considering a career in Washington. Kaitlyn said she has a “passion for service, public policy, and economics” so the nation’s capital would be the ideal place to work. Working for a think tank, for the Federal Reserve, or for Congress are options that interest her.

“I would love to be working on the Hill!” she said.

Hopefully, someday, Kaitlyn!