Display of painting at U.S. Capitol caps a meaningful personal project for Visual Arts student

Hilleary Wray's painting "Innocence" is currently on display at the United States Capitol, the winner of the annual Congressional Art Competition for District 10 of North Carolina.

The high school senior in the Visual Arts program submitted the painting — which features the front porch of her grandparents' family home in Maiden, N.C. — last spring in an effort to build her portfolio and expand her reach as an artist. And she was overjoyed to learn that a piece that meant so much to her and her family had been chosen by Rep. Patrick McHenry's office to represent the district in the nation's capital.

The painting will be on display in the Capitol through August 2022 (it went up in August 2021), mirroring Wray's time at UNCSA and her transition from high school to college, where she intends to study architecture. And she will have used that transition time to its fullest, discovering new mediums and exploring her work as an artist before taking the next big step.

Wray's painting, "Innocence"

Wray's painting of the front porch of her grandparents' home in Maiden, N.C. is on display at the U.S. Capitol through August 2022

Congressional Art Competition

As a high school junior in spring 2021, Wray attended Discovery High, an all-honors high school in Newton-Conover, N.C. "It's an academically-driven, project-based school, so it didn't have a lot of art opportunities," she says. She was attending art classes at the public high school across the street, working on building her portfolio to apply to UNCSA.

"I knew I wanted to go to UNCSA, and I wanted to start looking at scholarships, art competitions, galleries — ways to get my art out there," she says. Her art teacher told her about the Congressional Art Competition and she prepared the piece and her submission within a two-week window in May.

The annual competition, sponsored by the Congressional Institute, is held each spring to recognize and encourage artistic talent in the nation, and in each congressional district. Students submit entries to their representative’s office and winning works are displayed for one year at the U.S. Capitol.

Wray learned in August, just as she started classes at UNCSA, that her piece was selected and would be going to Washington, D.C. In a video call with McHenry, he congratulated her and said that the painting reminded him of his own grandparent’s home.

A piece of home

Wray's piece, titled "Innocence," is a painting of the porch from the home her grandparents (and her own family) lived in for most of her childhood. It has deep significance to her entire family, particularly over the last few years.

"My grandparents owned a house in Maiden that I grew up in. I was in that house from before kindergarten through fifth grade. Even when we moved out, we went back all the time. We would go for holidays and to play with my cousins."

She started the painting in 2019 and around that time, her grandfather had a stroke and was diagnosed with diabetes. The large home and accompanying land became too much for her grandparents to maintain.

... this seemed like the perfect opportunity to paint something for them because the house meant so much to my family.

Hilleary Wray

"They decided to sell the house," she says. "I had just started a piece, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to paint something for them because the house meant so much to my family."

She gave the painting to her grandmother during the family's final walk through of the home. "I remember walking in and being really upset that we were leaving, but also being giddy because I had this big surprise for her," she says. "When they moved into their new house, she found a blank wall in the dining room and put it right in the middle of the wall. As soon as you walked in, it's the first thing you saw in the new house."

From academics to art

Submitting her painting to the Congressional Art Competition was part of a larger plan by Wray to explore her art in more depth before beginning her college architecture studies. At Discovery High, she had taken many AP classes and had been dually enrolled in academic classes at the local community college. For her senior year, she wanted to balance that academic drive with more focused art classes.

"I was always academically driven, but I had always also done art," she says. "When I was little, I did dance classes, I did theater for five or six years and I started painting in sixth grade. After about two years of painting, I started helping with classes at Brush Strokes Studio," she says. "I spent a lot of time there and had started veering more toward art."

She decided to wrap up some of her AP classes at Discovery, with the goal of applying to UNCSA for her senior year.

"I have been hell-bent on studying architecture for the last three or four years, and I saw applying to UNCSA as an opportunity to get my portfolio under my belt and expand on my art more."

Tackling other art forms

Prior to coming to UNCSA, Wray says she had always been encouraged to pursue the type of art she was most interested in. "And of course that was painting," she says. "I was really honed in on that one medium."

"When I came here, I actually didn't know until I got here that I would be taking sculpture class," she laughs. "Considering I've only worked in two-dimensional art my whole life, I was a little thrown off. Sculpture has probably been one of the harder classes."

But she sees value in taking on the challenge. In fact, one of her favorite projects this year was a sculpture project during Intensive Arts.

For Visual Arts students, the two week period was split into one week of sculpture and one week of design, with the topic of the project centered around a time when the artists weren't themselves. Working with partners, the students spent the first week creating a wearable sculpture. For week two, they were to create an environment for that sculpture.

With her partner, Haven Lee, the two decided to base their pieces on the ways in which their personalities shifted around different people and were influenced by those people.

Wray and Lee with their wearable sculptures

Wray (left) and Lee with their wearable sculptures Intensive Arts project. / Instagram photo: @uncsa.visualarts

"For our wearable sculpture, we created these hands that were completely consuming us," Wray says. Working with everything from plastic gloves and bags, to heat guns and papier mache, the two created their pieces.

She was proud, she says, of the final pieces, a result of their creative minds and imaginations. And, her experience working with sculpture will come in handy in architecture school next year.

Wray has yet to decide on a college, but knows that she wants her work to focus on residential design and sustainability. "I've always been big on being able to use my talent to make an impact," she says. "I really want to channel working on homes that are safer and better for the environment."

And she says UNCSA has been a great stepping stone for where she wants to go. "I really like having access to the studios and being able to mix in with the different art disciplines," she says. "I like the freedom it gives me also. I'm very organized and coming here, because I have that ability, I feel like I can get a lot further."

by Corrine Luthy

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February 21, 2022