Second-grader’s letter draws muralist to Janney Elementary

Janney students helped paint the new mural. (photo courtesy of Jenn Reid)

When local second-grader Sanah Hutchins wrote a letter to North Carolina-based artist Matthew Willey asking him to paint a mural at her school, she wasn’t even sure she’d get a response. She certainly had no idea that he would agree to spend six weeks in D.C. completing the project.

Willey recently finished the mural of honeybees and other pollinators on a rear wall at Tenleytown’s Janney Elementary as part of his larger “The Good of the Hive” initiative to individually paint 50,000 honeybees (the number in a healthy hive) around the world. The project aims to bring people together and boost awareness of the importance of protecting bees, he told The Current.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly completed mural took place at Janney last Thursday, where attendees included Karen Pence, wife of the vice president; Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture; and Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh.

Janney second-grader Sanah Hutchins encouraged artist Matthew Willey to paint a mural at the Tenleytown school. (photo courtesy of Nabeeha Kazi)

At the event, Willey talked about his fascination with bees and said the project is able to bring people together and find common ground. Throughout the process of creating the Janney mural, Willey involved students, fielding hundreds of questions and allowing them to paint parts of the mural, although Willey painted the bees.

“What blows me away more than the questions is the curiosity,” Willey told the crowd at the ribbon-cutting. “The idea of making all these paintings, and painting all these bees, is really to spark that curiosity to keep people interested. It’s the essence of why I started doing this in the first place.”

Hutchins wrote the letter to Willey in January asking him to come to Janney after she saw a video about him and his work. She told The Current that she likes bees and other pollinators — not only because they’re cute and fuzzy, but also for their importance in food production. “I didn’t know he was going to paint it, but when he said yes, I was really excited,” Hutchins said.

Her favorite part of the mural is that the bees form the shape of a butterfly. Hutchins also likes the bright blues and yellows that Willey included in the mural.

The mural at Janney Elementary School was painted by Matthew Willey. (photo courtesy of The Good of the Hive)

Willey posted the letter from Hutchins on his Instagram page, and it received a larger response than his other posts. He said that he choose to come to Janney because of Hutchins’ letter and because her mother, Nabeeha Kazi, was willing to be a “champion” for the project: Kazi spearheaded getting approval for the mural and was involved throughout the process.

At last week’s event, Cheh spoke about the District’s broader environmental goals, and said that there is an obligation to take care of the planet for future generations. Willey told The Current that by “hovering in the curiosity of how brilliant nature is,” more people are able to appreciate environmental issues.

Pence spoke at the ribbon cutting about her own experiences as both a teacher and a watercolor artist. She said that Willey’s work reminds her of Georgia O’Keefe’s larger-than-life flowers and also pointed out the importance of honeybees in agriculture. Pence said she has installed a hive at the vice presidential residence on Massachusetts Avenue NW.