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Haunting photo of ‘classy’ young woman takes top prize in Congressional competition


If a picture is worth a thousand words, there seems to be a long, valuable story behind the haunting portrait of a young woman who appears deep in thought. The photograph titled “Classy” is as captivating as it is creatively captured.

It’s also this year’s top honor recipient at ArtFest 2018, the Congressional Art Competition for Michigan’s Third District.  Student artist and photographer Nick Ensing, a junior at Northview High School, is no stranger to the winner’s circle. Last year, his drawing “Modern Renaissance” was named Representative’s Choice.  This year his photo “Classy,” taken of his good friend Mariah Jennings, was named grand prize winner and will hang in the U.S. Capitol for a year alongside winners from other congressional districts. Nick will visit Washington, DC in June for a reception honoring winners from across the country.

Nick Ensing’s photo “Classy” won the grand prize in ArtFest for Michigan’s Third Congressional District

While “Classy” hangs in Washington, a big brushed aluminum image of Michigan’s two peninsulas will reside in U.S. Rep. Justin Amash’s home state office.  The artwork “Harmony” by Kent Career Tech Center student Elijah Beasley was selected as one of two Representative’s Choice winners. “Point Cabrillo” by Hannah Van Wert, a Kent City High School student, also earned this honor. This architecturally precise ink and watercolor work of a lighthouse against a vividly changing sky conjures up images of Michigan’s iconic shoreline structures. Both pieces will hang in Amash’s congressional offices.

Students whose pieces received honorable mention in the 3rd Congressional District are:

  • Mallory Jarrett, Rockford High School
  • Sophia Layton, East Grand Rapids High School
  • Claire Shaffer, Northview High School
  • Keauna Hayes, Thornapple Kellogg High School
  • Willow Barnes, Kent Career Tech Center
  • Nisa Brooks, East Kentwood High School
  • Ivan Reynolds, Lowell High School

Artwork by seven additional students received honorable mentions from the judging committee (see list).  Representatives from Kent ISD, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, ArtPrize, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Portland Community Arts Council, Kellogg Community College and Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts participated in the judging committee.  The awards were presented at a ceremony at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on Saturday, May 5.

This story is part of the State of the Arts series highlighting the value of arts programs to students’ creative development and academic success

In the 3rd District, 78 pieces were submitted and displayed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum.  More than 650, 000 students have participated in the annual art competition held in U.S. congressional districts since it began in 1982.

“There are so many artistically talented students in West Michigan, and ArtFest provides them with both an outlet for their creativity and well-deserved public recognition,” Amash said.

He has enthusiastically continued a tradition that has endured through seven presidents and countless political battles, a testimony to the value of arts education in area public schools.

“Harmony” by Kent Career Tech Center student Elijah Beasley won a Representative’s Choice award

An Artistic Natural

Nick, who has been passionate about art since he was 4, loves photography and dabbles in other mediums.

“Nick has God-given talent,” said Northview art teacher Tricia Erickson. “He’s a natural when it comes to drawing and painting.”

Nick, who plans to major in art in college, has been focusing on photography lately, working with the lost art of film. For “Classy,” he used a vintage Polaroid with natural light on a rainy day at his grandmother’s house, then scanned and roughed it up to create the grainy look of a 1970s photo.

He photographed Mariah at her request for her senior picture, but it developed into a larger project with other photos. “Classy” was his least favorite photo, but Mariah loved it.

“There’s not a lot of class these days,” Mariah said. “It’s not cool anymore. As a woman, you want to see other women doing better. With social media, you see a lot of stuff going on in our generation that’s crazy.”

Hannah Van Wert of Kent City High School won a Representative’s Choice award (photo by Janice Holst)

Nick is happy not only that his photo was chosen, but that it was one that features a young black woman.

“The whole basis of my photography is representing especially black women,” he said. “In traditional fine art photography, I don’t see a lot of representation in that area, and I’m kind of like sick of it. A majority of my friends are black and I don’t see them represented.”

Erickson says the picture is powerful and timeless.

“She looks regal, and it’s a very haunting photo,” Erickson said. “This picture could have been taken now or 10 years ago. It almost has the feel of a painting.”

To have Mariah’s image hanging in the nation’s capital means a lot to both her and Nick.

Hannah Van Wert’s watercolor “Point Cabrillo” won a Representative’s Choice award

“It’s crazy because I didn’t think it would go that far,” Mariah said. “I feel like we didn’t think that much of it, and now it’s in the U.S. Capitol.”

The photo also won a gold medal for the National Scholastic Art and Writing Award, for which Nick will be honored in June at Carnegie Hall.

Kent ISD purchases 10-12 pieces each year from the show for its permanent collection, which is displayed on the walls of the Education Service Center and open to the public during business hours.

The Congressional Institute sponsors the Congressional Art Competition in cooperation with the U.S. House of Representatives. The annual competition is open to high school students in participating congressional districts.

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Congressional Art Competition

Elijah Beasley with U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who selected Elijah’s work for one of two pieces to hang in his offices

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is fantastic! Mariah obviously is physically beautiful on the outside and Nick sounds like a beautiful person on the inside. The world would be a much better place if more people thought (and acted) like these two intelligent and talented young people.

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