To the untrained eye, the Cubist artwork painted by Kathleen Palmer, a senior at Shawnee High School in New Jersey, would appear to show two men looking at each other.
One is writing in a notebook, the other has antlers.
But when Representative Andy Kim, a Democrat whose district includes the high school, included a photo of Palmer’s creation in a tweet announcing that the teenager had won an art competition that would earn the painting a spot in the U.S. Capitol, many people saw something else entirely: fan art inspired by the long-canceled NBC show “Hannibal,” nodding to a love story between two male characters, being recognized by the federal government.
“I didn’t know that it was related to a TV show,” Mr. Kim, who picked the winning painting from his district, said on Friday. “I just thought it was really beautiful, well executed, and it was really striking.”
The painting is titled “Dolce,” after an episode from the third and final season of “Hannibal.” The show, which went off the air in 2015, explored the relationship between the cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, a character made famous by Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Will Graham, a young F.B.I. agent who can empathize with serial killers.
Palmer, who uses they and them pronouns, began watching the show late last year after seeing clips from the series on TikTok. It took Palmer four weeks to finish the painting — a 16-by-20-inch oil on canvas, their first work in a Cubist style — completing the final details by Dec. 23.
“It was just a casual art-class project,” Palmer, 17, said on Friday. “I didn’t expect it to go this far.”
The painting reflects the dynamic between the characters through its use of color, Palmer said. The warm red tones on Hannibal’s side of the painting evoke the serial killer’s bloodlust and passion, while Will’s cool blues signify how he is both hunting and being hunted in the pair’s cat-and-mouse game.
The U.S. Capitol is an unusually high-profile space to display fan art, which is typically a labor of love. The art form is often long on passion but short on recognition outside generally self-contained fan communities.
Fans inspired by their favorite books, shows, games and movies have long drawn in their own notebooks, with zines — independent, usually self-published magazines — being one of the few ways to get the artwork published in the pre-internet world. Others write fan fiction, creating their own scripts and spinning new stories with dialogue they want to see.
But the rise of blogging platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr allowed obsessive fans to find one another more easily than ever, putting their work in front of appreciative, like-minded audiences and inspiring more artists to take part.
Sometimes the artwork is done in tribute, taking beloved characters and presenting them in a new light based on the artist’s personal style. At other times, fans take those beloved characters and thrust them into new contexts, remixing the source material as they desire.
A common form that takes appears in shipping, in which two characters are imagined in a romantic relationship or an audience supports them being together. It often happens with two characters who have undeniable chemistry, even if the source material doesn’t come right out and say it. (The term “slash” is used for same-sex relationships, and “slashfic” for art and writing that places them together.)
The two characters featured in Palmer’s painting, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, have long been shipped by “Hannibal” fans, who have given the pair a couple nickname: “Hannigram.”
“I guess I did incorporate that into the painting,” Palmer said of the slashfic, adding that it’s heavily implied in the show that the characters have a romantic spark.
The Congressional Art Competition, now in its 40th year, is sponsored by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on educating the public about Congress. The judging process is run by U.S. representatives. In the spring, a winner is picked from each of the 435 congressional districts that choose to hold the competition.
Mr. Kim consulted with six local artists and art enthusiasts for recommendations, but the congressman made the final decision. There were 12 entries in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District, which stretches from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore. This was the third year that Mr. Kim, who was first elected in 2018, has hosted the competition in his district.
Each of the winning paintings is displayed in a tunnel between the House of Representatives and a congressional office building, according to Mark N. Strand, the president of the Congressional Institute.
“It’s a great opportunity to have kids show their art to the world,” Mr. Strand said on Friday. “And it’s one of the most bipartisan things members can do.”
Palmer started making art about six years ago, beginning with drawing. Every once in a while, Palmer said, they would fall off the wagon, but while forced to stay home during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, they rediscovered art as a passion.
“I really like making beautiful things,” Palmer said on Friday. “It’s really gratifying to make beauty.”
Palmer said that the unexpected support from the competition had inspired them to keep working at their art, especially as they prepare to enter Ohio University as a studio arts major.
“It’s been a big motivation,” Palmer said of winning the competition. “Being validated in this scale is really, really fantastic. It’s lit the fire underneath me to paint more and work on my skills more.”