Rachel Paterson, the winner of the 2021 Congressional Art Competition for Florida’s 10th Congressional District, lost her grandfather to covid. From this painful experience came her award-winning artwork Grief, which weaves her love for her grandfather, her father, her God, and her neighbor.

In Grief, a man hugs an invisible person, who is discernable as the grayish-brown of the background obstructs the lower half of the visible man’s face and half of his body. By representing her grandfather as an invisible figure, Rachel reflects how she describes what it’s like when a loved one dies. 

Grief, by Rachel Paterson, Congressional Art Competition winner for FL-10 in 2021
Grief, by Rachel Paterson, winner of the 2021 Congressional Art Competition for Florida’s 10th Congressional District

“Losing someone opens a gaping hole in your life you never knew existed until they are not there to fill it anymore,” she said.

“This drawing represents the empty space in your life when you lose someone.”

For her, losing her grandfather was a double loss. Not only was her grandfather gone, but Rachel also was never really able to have a relationship with him due to a stroke he had suffered many years ago. “Something I never had was taken from me, but it still hurt,” she said.

Her pain was compounded by seeing her father grieve as well. 

“I noticed a hole for my grandfather grow in my own heart as I watched the hole in my father’s heart stretch wider,” she said.

And given the pandemic, their shared grief is something others can understand. Rachel said she created her artwork to help others who were grieving. She wanted people to know that others are there for them as they mourn. Grief is part of the healing process, she said.

“With the pandemic taking over in 2020 and spilling over into 2021, many lives were lost, and many holes were opened up,” she said. “The best thing we can do now is embrace the pain and emotions that flow from the hole in your life.”

And in embracing the emotions from her family’s experience of losing her grandfather, Rachel was able to produce a piece of art that won the Congressional Art Competition exhibit. A couple of years ago, Rachel visited Washington, DC, and toured the Capitol, where she saw the Congressional Art Competition exhibit. She imagined that one day, her art would hang there as well. Nonetheless, when she received word from the office of Rep. Val Demings that she won for her district, she described herself as “in shock.” She was so excited that she immediately texted her best friends to share the “amazing news.”

First held in 1982, the Congressional Art Competition is a bipartisan initiative of the U.S. House of Representatives to support the artistic talents of high school students. 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.

With so many people viewing the Congressional Art Competition exhibit, one of Rachel’s prayers has been answered.

“This is all thanks to God,” she said. “I thanked him for the gift he had given me and prayed that he would use me to reach even more people on a deeper level than ever before.”

One of Rachel’s favorite artists is the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci. Another is Nunzio Paci, a modern Italian artist who often depicts human and animal anatomy intertwined with flowers, trees, shells, and other natural objects. These artists are known for their exquisite depictions of the human form, which Rachel particularly appreciates.

Like these artists, Rachel works fine detail into her art. In Grief, the viewer sees wrinkles in the man’s suit and his right shirt cuff flair out slightly; the tendons in his clenched left hand and wrinkles around his eye; and comb lines and a part in his two-toned hair. The artwork and the title don’t indicate where the scene takes place. Still, the elements that Rachel includes make it easy to imagine it’s at a funeral or wake. The grief she aims to depict emerges from the carefully selected details she includes.

Though Rachel’s artwork and her favorite artists demonstrate attention to refined techniques, the best advice that Rachel has received on making great art addresses the artist’s mindset. “Do not doubt your ability,” she said. “If you have something the world needs you to know, do whatever it takes to get your message out.”

“Take risks in creating art and keep an open mind,” she said. “Don’t let your fear of messing up stop you from creating something you know will look amazing.”

To get ideas for her art, Rachel likes to look at a person’s body language and emotions. Sometimes, she said, people’s body language doesn’t match up with what their body language suggests, so Rachel infers what is going on inside the person and depicts that. “I like to bring that hidden part of a person out,” she said.

“Anyone and everyone inspires me,” she said. 

Outside of creating art, Rachel enjoys spending time with family and friends. “It does not really matter what we do together,” she said. “Being with them and connecting with them is what I enjoy the most.”

(Her response to this question also is reminiscent of what she meant to convey with her artwork. When you lose someone, she said, “you realize just how much they mean to you when you are unable to give them a hug or tell them about your day.”) 

The theme of losing a relationship can also be found in her favorite movie Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. “I love seeing the progression of Anakin’s character and his relationship with his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, even though it is sad,” she said.

“My favorite scene takes place on the fiery planet, Mustafar, when Obi-Wan is fighting Anakin in tears as he says, ‘You were my brother Anakin! I loved you!’”

Her favorite emoticon is the simple smiley face: 🙂 A smile, she noted, can help people in many different ways. “I like making other people smile, and sometimes the best way to do that is to smile myself,” she said.

Some day, Rachel hopes to graduate from college and then get a master’s degree, though she’s not sure in what field yet. She wants a dog, a cat, a house–and no debt. Plus good friends and a job she loves. But she’s open to other opportunities.

“Honestly, I don’t know what the future holds, and I will accept anything that comes my way because I know it is according to God’s plan,” she said. 

“Even difficult patches of life build character and hope for a better future.”

Students who would like more information about how to enter should contact their U.S. Representative. Contact information is available at House.gov.

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. It publishes The Sausage Factory blog, Surviving Inside Congress, and the U.S. House of Representatives Floor Procedures Manual. To sign up for updates about the Congressional Art Competition, click here.