South High senior Jose Valadez was speechless upon learning his painting, "Sergeant Underwood," had won first place in this year's Congressional Art Competition for the 21st District.
"I was like shocked," he said. "I just stood there -- didn't know what to say."
Valadez got the news a couple of weeks ago from his art teacher, Hank Washington, who was informed of his student's success in an email from U.S. Rep. David G. Valadao's office in Hanford.
Official recognition will come on Friday, when Valadao will be at South High to personally congratulate the youth.
"I am honored that I had the opportunity to host this competition and display the great work of our high school students here in the Central Valley," Valadao said in a media release.
"Jose's work will be honored in Congress and strongly represent our district in Washington."
Valadez's work will hang in the U.S. Capitol for an entire year and, if he chooses to, he can go there to see it in person. His award includes a round-trip ticket to Washington, courtesy of Southwest Airlines.
Washington said his student worked hard on completing the painting of Underwood, the ROTC officer on campus, staying after school and coming in early for about two weeks.
"Jose was in the beginners' art class but I felt I could move him up because he is very talented," he said. "I told him I thought he could win this."
Although Washington suggested Underwood as the subject for the painting, Valadez did have a connection with the officer. In his freshman year the student was in the South High ROTC unit.
"I believe my responsibility is to give (students) some guidance, to help them choose wisely," the art teacher said. "A rock band, for instance, is not suitable for a congressional art show -- that's why it's military."
Of course Valadez did all of the actual work on the painting, which included taking a photo of Underwood, transferring the image to a canvas, painting it in black and white except for the officer's service stripes, which are in gold, and then going online to find the 35 service patches he incorporated into the artwork's 48-square grid.
This is the second time a student of Washington's has won such an award. A year ago, Sarah Fanucchi took first place in a similar contest sponsored by Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno, whose district at the time included parts of Kern County just as Valadao's does now.
In 2010, another student, Andrew Frausto won the top state award from the California Art Educators Association, an honor that included a weekend in New York City for the student, his brother and his teacher.
And last year Washington got a prestigious award himself by getting second place in an international competition sponsored by Artist's Magazine. His pop-art portrait of his son J.R. was also published in the magazine.
It seems obvious that Washington is dedicated to his profession -- as an artist and as a teacher -- a person who believes in giving his students that extra push that young people sometimes need.
His teaching methods are centered on the individual. The approach he takes with each student is different, because he recognizes that each one comes to class with a different set of skills.
"I kind of like to raise the bar for kids and tell them what I expect of them," he said. "Once they gain self-confidence and come to believe in themselves it becomes a little easier for them to see some of the things I'm asking them to do are beginning to make sense."