Tenleytown first-grader wins nationwide art contest

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Janney Elementary first-grader Sanah Hutchins, shown with art teacher Molly Kraybill, won a nationwide contest with her painting of endangered bumblebees. (photo courtesy of Nabeeha Kazi)
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Sanah Hutchins, 7, clutched her new plaque to her chest. Her father knelt down to her level and extended his hand, hoping to read the inscription on the front. But Hutchins held firm.

“Mine!” she said.

It’s easy to see why Hutchins, a first-grader at Janney Elementary in Tenleytown, was feeling possessive. She’s the first champion of the Endangered Species Coalition’s annual youth art competition to hail from D.C., and one of the youngest winners in the prize’s 12-year history — the previous two winners were in 10th grade and sixth grade.

Her watercolor painting of the rusty patched bumblebee, currently on the coalition’s list of species in danger of extinction, topped more than 1,400 entries nationwide from students in kindergarten through 12th grade. At a reception in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Rayburn Office Building cafeteria last Wednesday, the adults sang Hutchins’ praises while she bounced around the room, full of energy yet slightly overwhelmed by all the attention.

Prior to the ceremony, contest judges gave her painting the highest marks — “beautiful illustration,” “such freedom of expression.” Another said, “It wins the contest on a number of levels.” At the Capitol Hill event, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh regarded Hutchins’ work with an awed expression on her face.

Sanah Hutchins worked for five to six days on her award-winning watercolor. (photo courtesy of Nabeeha Kazi)

Hutchins — who’s lived in Tenleytown for most of her life — started painting when she was 2 years old, and now does an art project almost every day, according to her mother Nabeeha Kazi. Bees are Hutchins’ favorite animal, and she hopes to be a “bee scientist” someday. The winning painting shows six bees, including one that falls victim to pollution, and took her five or six days to produce, she said.

Kazi initially encouraged Hutchins to enter the contest merely as a way of teaching her important life skills: following instructions, conducting research, meeting deadlines.

“She was like, ‘What if I don’t win?’” Kazi said. “I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if you win, just try it.’ And then she won!”
Hutchins’ achievement took a little while to sink in. When a contest representative called Kazi to congratulate Hutchins, Kazi thought Hutchins had won one of the smaller prizes. Weeks later, in a taxi just before the Rayburn reception, Hutchins asked her mother, “But who won the whole thing?”

“You did!” Kazi told her.

Nicholas Ledyard, Hutchins’ teacher at Janney, describes Hutchins as “the bee expert in the classroom.” Her talents aren’t confined to visual art, though. She’s fluent in Spanish, often helping during lessons, and she spends her free time in school writing and performing skits with her friends.

“She can be a little shy at times. Certainly a confident individual,” Ledyard said in an interview. “She’s a pleasure to have in class.”

When The Current asked Hutchins what she had done all day before the event, she said, “Nothing but take lots of pictures.” But that wasn’t quite true — Hutchins spent the morning learning more about bees from Alice Tangerini, an illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History who offers an art lesson to the competition’s grand-prize winner each year. Tangerini told The Current that Hutchins seemed to absorb even the most complex details, a feat for someone her age.

Sanah Hutchins’ painting of an endangered bee species depicts one of the insects falling victim to pollution.

“She was extremely attentive and very involved in doing the painting,” Tangerini said. “I was very happy to have a student like that.”

Right before the ceremony, Hutchins, her 5-year-old brother Coleman, and their parents and extended relatives joined a wide-eyed group of congressional staffers in gawking at and petting an armadillo, a bearcat, a kangaroo and several other animals brought in by the coalition for the event.

Receiving an award in front of a crowd of adults is daunting, but Hutchins seemed to take it in stride. “I’m happy,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

The original contest assignment was to draw an endangered species from the coalition’s list. But Hutchins’ choice was almost a disaster — just a few days before the deadline, the Trump administration postponed recognizing the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species worthy of federal protection. Contest organizers assured Kazi that Hutchins could still submit her art; the government later bowed to public pressure and added the bee to the list.

Janney will be seeing even more bee artwork later this year, when artist Matthew Willey paints a mural at the school to kick off his worldwide “Good of the Hive” project, in which he’ll paint murals featuring a total of 50,000 bees in the U.S. and abroad to raise awareness about their population decline.

When Kazi, a board member at the environmental nonprofit Food Tank, showed Hutchins the mural proposal from a board meeting, Hutchins decided to write Willey a letter asking him to paint a bee mural at Janney.

Kazi hadn’t even asked the Janney principal for permission because she didn’t think Willey would say yes. But he enjoyed the letter so much that he posted it on Instagram and agreed to her request. He’ll paint the Janney mural in October.