When Phoebe Mills won a citywide essay contest this spring, she figured that would be the standout moment of her senior year at Girls Preparatory School.
Then came news that one of her paintings will hang in the U.S. Capitol.
Mills was notified in May that she had placed first in district competition in a nationwide high school visual art competition sponsored by the Congressional Institute. This week she will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the opening reception and award ceremony. Her work, an oil painting titled "Watercolor Window," will be on view for a year.
Mills had previously entered the contest her sophomore year but had heard nothing back from the organization. So when her art teacher submitted her work again this year, she gave it little thought.
She learned of her win just after leaving the city's Fair Housing Luncheon, where she had earned a standing ovation after reading her essay on Martin Luther King Jr. She was in the car with her history teacher when she got an email from her art teacher, Julie Deavers, marked, "Exciting news. Please read."
"Watercolor Window," Deavers told her, had placed first in the district in the art competition.
Deavers says she's not surprised by Mills' victory.
"I knew she was ready for it, and I just encouraged her to try it," she says. "Of course she handled it beautifully."
Mills says she didn't expect the painting to place at all since she had never been acknowledged for her efforts in the past.
The win included two plane tickets to the nation's capital, Mills' first visit there. She's taking her mom, Kathryn.
"She's been utterly critical to my development and confidence and sense of self," says Mills about her mother.
Being a visual artist isn't Mills' only talent.
She graduated with a 3.8 grade point average and was an AP Scholar, granted to students who earn scores of 3 or higher on three or more advanced-placement exams. She also was named May Queen, the senior elected by the student body to represent the school on May Day, a senior recognition day at the school. Members of the May Court are nominated for reflecting inner beauty, who actively contribute to the life of the school and who embody the ideals of character and integrity.
Mills also enjoys dancing and photography. She's so good at photography that she was able to earn extra money by shooting senior pictures of her classmates. She believes all of her talents enhance her art.
Her interest in dancing gives her ideas for poses when she's painting pictures of people, and her photography allows her to capture a picture she wants to paint. Having the photo enables her to recall details in a scene, she says.
"Watercolor Window" was a photo before it was a painting. She snapped the shot of classmate Tatiana Poggi on a bus with fogged windows.
Mills says she liked the way the traffic lights blurred across the window, making the scene look surreal and magical.
"She notices color and light patterns that no one else notices," Poggi says.
Her father, the late Wilmer Mills, gave her an appreciation for painting, Mills says. She recalls painting with him and her brother on rainy days when they couldn't play outside.
"He would sit us down and help us do watercolor paintings. That was a big part of my childhood that led me to do painting later on in my life," she says.
Mills had never painted with oil but believed the photo of Poggi looked like an oil painting. So after two years of learning and practicing techniques, she gave it a try.
The Congressional Institute sponsors the Artistic Discovery competition each spring. Since its inception in 1982, more than 650,000 high school students have participated, according to the nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to helping members of Congress better serve their constituents.
Mills plans to study liberal arts at the University of the South in Sewanee.
If she had to choose now, she'd probably go into art, but she'd like to explore more fields before deciding on a profession, she says.
"I'm hoping that I'll get exposure to as many disciplines as possible so I can really find out what it is that I'm meant to do in the world."
Contact Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.