The Congressional Art Competition
Shiny-haired, tan, and pretty, Harley Dallojacono, a senior at Patchogue-Medford High School on Long Island, seems like a normal teenager—not the kind of girl who would produce the most haunting photograph hanging in the Capitol. For an art project this year, her teacher told her the theme was horror, and although Harley says she’s not at all into gore, “I was like, OK, I’ll go with that.” After brainstorming with some of her classmates, she used glue, makeup, and a bit of tissue to create “Zipper Face,” a macabre image of a young man unzipping his visage to reveal the bloody form underneath.
“I liked the reaction people in my class gave me,” Dallojacono says. “They were like, ‘That’s really scary’ and ‘That kinda freaks me out.’ ” Given the response, her teacher entered Dallojacono’s piece in the Congressional Art Competition, an annual contest that allows each House member to have one high school student artist’s work from his or her district hang in the Capitol for a year. Dallojacono hardly expected to win. When the judge started talking about the cool blues and the warm reds in her piece, she says, “I felt all the color in my face go. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s me.’ I looked over at my teacher. I was in total shock.”
Dallojacono was one of thousands this year who entered the art contest, which is supported by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate the public about Congress and help members serve their constituents. More than 650,000 students have competed since 1982. Each House member reaches out to high school art departments and asks local artists to judge. Additional prizes vary by district (at least one student this year won a $10,000 scholarship to art school), but all the winning students get two round-trip tickets to Washington to meet their members and see their art hanging in the Cannon tunnel—a sterile, subterranean channel connecting the Cannon House Office Building to the Capitol.
People rushing back and forth between buildings all day have little else to look at, and what often stands out, amid the more conventional pieces—a portrait of an eagle, a drawing of a soldier holding his daughter, a painting of manatees—are pieces that are deeper, darker, and more complex than what you might expect of a high school art competition. They are thrilling, confounding, unsettling. And they can be jarring for the culturally conservative denizens of the Capitol, who often live sanitized, poll-tested lives designed not to offend (or to offend only the opposing party). This may be the last facet of congressional life not premised on artifice. And it shows.
Visitors inspecting the work during the August recess seemed surprised at what they found. “A lot of them are … odd,” said a woman with short-cropped hair who was pushing an elderly relative in a wheelchair as a staffer walked her through the hallway.
“A lot of them are dark ,” the aide replied. “Last year’s was really dark.”
“I feel like I need to call some of them and ask if they’re OK.”
A red-headed staffer in a short dress passed by moments later with two constituents in tow, pointing out her district’s winning work. “Every time someone comes in for a tour, we have to show them this one. It’s so embarrassing!”
Another khaki-clad staffer told some tourists, “If I were a kid, I’d want to draw, like, a dog or something. Not, like, a lightbulb with an octopus coming out of it.”
But there it is, an octopus in a lightbulb. Also, an arresting portrait of an old woman, her face blue, her red eyes glowing, called “What Do You See?” that evokes the face of Star Wars villain Darth Sidious. And a painting of a sad clown, his red nose smudged. (“This world ain’t a wasteland it just taste that way some times,” the script says.) Many of the pieces depict serious issues, such as homelessness. Others are subversive.
Jordan Adams, a purple-haired Iowa City senior from Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack’s district, created a series of manipulated photographs that play on 1950s iconography in ways that upend the era’s traditional values. One from her series adapts an image of a mother serving dinner to her children. Adams put the head of a monkey on the mother and a gun in the hands of a child; a nuclear explosion is visible through the window. It is called “I Hope You’re Miserable.” “I took something with each picture, something that we believe is the ideal of perfect—an upper-class neighborhood, a family picture,” she explains, “and I made them different, because they’re not perfect; that’s not what they are.” Her winning piece, “Daddy Knows Best,” shows a father reading to his children—except the children’s eyes have been scratched out, and the father has the head of an ass. “That’s kind of self-explanatory,” she says.
Another student artist, Madison Safer, won with a haunting photograph of a young woman curled up in a laundry basket turned sideways on a train track. “It’s really about the struggles of being a young woman; that’s what it meant to me. The feelings of isolation and solitude,” she says, describing the theme behind her winning work, “Dirty Laundry?” “I consider myself to be a feminist, so dealing with the dilemma of women in society and also conservation of the land is also very important to me,” says Safer, whose work represents Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Ohio district.
Taken together, America’s best teenage artists appear to be grappling with serious subjects. “Misery at Mission Midnight,” “Seeking Human Kindness,” and “Dream Deferred” (winners from Brad Sherman’s district in California, Lois Frankel’s in Florida, and John Lewis’s in Georgia) are all empathic depictions of people at the margins of society. “It’s kind of supposed to convey the pain behind someone who’s living on the streets and doesn’t have anywhere to go,” says Elizabeth Burton, a young California artist who drew a man’s weathered face shrouded in a black hoodie.
And while many of the students say they didn’t have a political message in mind when they made their art, the pieces are exactly the kinds of images voters might want their lawmakers to think about as they walk to the House floor for votes. “I can only ask for the message that people would pay more attention to the troubles people are going through in this country. I don’t feel confident enough to talk about politics, because I don’t feel educated enough,” says Conner O’Byrne, who photographed a panhandler while visiting Boston. “But from a personal standpoint, I think it’s important to tell each other that. If lawmakers would do that, it’d make the country a better place.”
It would be unfair to characterize the congressional audience as wholly unappreciative of this work. Democratic Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Frankel of Florida both dabble in the arts themselves—the former in watercolor landscapes, the latter in abstract acrylic paintings of faces—and both are thrilled to support the young artists in their district with pieces in the Capitol. “It doesn’t represent the district in terms of what I would put on a poster for tourism,” says Frankel, O’Byrne’s member. “But it does represent humanity.” She continued, “I think there’s sort of an irony, because I don’t think when people think about Florida and the district I represent, which is the beaches basically, … you wouldn’t think about [the] homeless. But the sad fact of the matter is, they are here and they are all over this world.”
Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who marveled at the brush strokes of the winning clown portrait from his district, and Sean Duffy, R-Wis., whose district’s winning piece, “Lost Puppy,” is a drawing of a teary-eyed little girl, also kvelled over the competition. “People don’t see Republicans as supporting the arts, and that’s not who we are. I believe it’s important for kids in my community, and for me as a representative, to show that I care about the arts. I support the arts and every tool we have. I’m going to let them know that I support them,” Duffy says. “For them to have their piece of art hanging in the Capitol—it’s pretty cool.”
He’s right. Most student artists I spoke with described how honored and thrilled they are to have their efforts celebrated in Congress. But these are teenagers and artists—instinctively a little bit rebellious. Not everyone was enamored of the idea. “I was happy, but at the same time, for me, the idea of an art competition is something that I find sort of destructive toward the real purpose of art,” says Kai Valencia, who won from Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s Maryland district. “I don’t think we should be selecting a few people who have the ability to determine what is a successful piece of art and what is not.” Valencia is into street artists such as Dan Witz and Greg Simkins, and to the untrained eye, his winning portrait brings to mind some of the paintings of George Condo, the American contemporary visual artist.
“It’s cool to have a piece of art hanging in the Capitol,” he says, but adds: “There are places I’d rather have it hanging.” The most important thing to him, after the process of creating art, is sharing it with an audience that can identify with it. “I don’t want to speak for anybody, but it seems like when I was walking through the Capitol, those paintings that were hanging aren’t really appreciated, because everyone is really caught up in politics, and everyone is rushing everywhere.” He paused. “I don’t know if that’s the best place to have an art show.”