Most parents don’t imagine going from hanging their child’s artwork on the fridge to one day seeing their work displayed in the U.S. Capitol. But Hoover High School senior Grace Varner proved that’s possible when she won the Sixth District’s 2018 Congressional Art Competition for her “Brother” piece.

Drawing has always been something she enjoyed, but she says she didn’t start seriously pursuing it until she was in the sixth grade. “I had a really good art teacher, and she really inspired me to go for it,” she says.

Her love for art only grew as she went into high school. As a senior, Varner was looking for something to draw for her AP art portfolio, which is what led to her creating her “Brother” graphite piece.



The inspiration for her award-winning artwork came from a photo her brother Cole took in his college photography class. “Throughout this year, I had been looking for interesting pieces that involve lighting,” Varner says. “My brother took this picture of himself that was perfect in terms of lighting, and he had laid mapping over his face in the photo.”

Varner’s interpretation of the photo caught the attention of her art teacher, Marla Kenney, who entered the drawing into the competition.

“I chose Grace’s portrait of her brother because of the uniqueness of the handling of the subject, as well as the skill in which it was rendered,” Kenney explains. “The use of the projected overlay of the map gave more interest to the image and made the viewer wonder where that person had traveled or where they were from. Giving the viewer more to think about in an art piece always captures the attention and makes the viewer see that there may be more depth in the artwork than just a portrait of an unknown person.”

And it was also Kenney who called to give Varner the big news that her artwork had won the competition.

“My art teacher called me when I was at work, and I saw I had a lot of missed calls and texts,” Varner recalls. “I finally picked up, and when she told me, I was very surprised. I was just in awe and didn’t know how to process it really. I immediately called my parents screaming.”

That excitement was contagious for everyone around her. “Grace is an exceptionally talented young woman. Her skills in art have astounded us all, and her graciousness just makes her that much more of a joy to teach,” Kenney says.

There were 64 students from 17 area high schools who participated in this year’s Congressional Art Competition. Since winning, her artwork has been displayed in the Riverchase Galleria and will now be showcased in the U.S. Capitol for a year. Varner was also recognized by Congressman Gary Palmer as the Sixth District’s 2018 Congressional Art Competition winner.

“Each year, I am impressed by the creative talents of the young people in Alabama’s Sixth District. I would like to congratulate Grace Varner on winning the competition this year, and I look forward to seeing her in D.C. this June for the National Art Reception,” said Palmer in a press release.

One of the most exciting parts about winning is that she gets to travel to the awards reception with her parents, Nathan and Liesl Varner, this summer in Washington D.C., which is one of her favorite places.

“I’m just really thankful for the opportunity. My art teacher has been a blessing, and my parents and friends have also been supportive,” Varner says. “It’s just more confirmation that I’m supposed to be doing this.”

She plans to major in art at the University of Montevallo this fall and go on to earn a master’s degree in education to become an art teacher. While Varner doesn’t consider herself to have an art style just yet, she says her teacher says it’s distinct.

“Grace is a traditionalist at this point. She draws what she sees,” Kenney says. “She renders images in a lifelike style, but in her concentration for AP Studio, she decided to study the light on the subject in alternative ways — using unusual colors that slightly distort the coloration of the skin.”

As she continues to hone her skills and move on to the next academic level, Varner still has her family, friends and teachers cheering her on.

“It has been a joy to have Grace as a student. She is humble and kind and well spoken. She is a good student all around, and her parents and I are very proud of her,” Kenney says. “It has been my great pleasure to teach her the past couple years, and I have nothing but good thoughts about how she will approach her future as an artist and an adult leaping onto the world stage.”