“I always knew I would be an artist of some kind,” says Kayla Whelan, Alumna of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly and winner of the first White House ornament design contest held by the White House Historical Association. “I entered the contest as part of a class… I was a junior at the time, and my school was one of a few that were handpicked for this contest. It was very open-ended: the other students and I were to design an ornament celebrating the presidency of Herbert Hoover, and therefore it needed to capture both the spirit of his presidency and the spirit of Christmas.”
This is the first time the ornament design was opened to the public, making Ms. Whelan the inaugural member of the general populace to create the official White House ornament, nearly one million copies of which will be made and sold by the White House Historical Association. She submitted her design all the way back in October 2014 and did not find out until nearly seven months later that she had won the competition.
“I was so shocked, I was crying and hugging everyone. I had to keep it secret for several months, which was not easy!”
Confronted with a prompt so broad as to encompass the whole presidency of Herbert Hoover, as well as tie in themes of Christmas, Whelan got off to a rocky start developing her design concept. “I did some thorough research on Hoover and everything that happened during his presidency, but nothing seemed to quite click,” she says. “One day, I stumbled upon an amazing story. On Christmas Eve in 1929, the West Wing caught fire while a Christmas party was going on. Firefighters put out the fire and the party didn’t even have to end. The following Christmas, the Hoovers presented the children who had been at that party with toy fire trucks of their own. The story moved me and I immediately designed an ornament based on a fire truck of that time period.” The ornament also features a Christmas tree in the back of the truck, a nice touch that neatly combines the two elements.
Whelan describes the process of crafting the winning design as a group effort guided by her professor, John Colan, as well as the input and feedback of her fellow classmates. “The five other students in my class and I offered one another critique and advice, and it was a very collaborative environment. My design never would have even made it into the contest if it hadn’t been for [Professor Colan] and the other students in my class who helped me along the way.”
As a result of her victory, Ms. Whelan has been swept up in a whirlwind of activities and invites, both in Washington D.C. and at home. She met with Congressman Seth Moulton, Representative for Massachusetts’s Sixth Congressional District, and presented him with a copy of her ornament. In September, Whelan attended a reception held by the White House Historical Association in Washington to celebrate her ornament, which she describes as “amazing.”
“I actually got to see and hold one of the original toys that was given by the Hoovers to the kids at the party, which was an incredibly surreal moment for me,” she says.
Mrs. Obama invited Kayla to an event celebrating 20th century art at the White House in October. After seeing Mrs. Obama speak, Whelan was shown the Blue Room where the tree bearing her ornament will stand during the First Family’s Christmas celebrations this year, the Obama’s last in the White House. She will be returning to Washington this month with her family for a tour of the White House, which she is “incredibly excited” about.
“There’s no way to describe how it has felt,” Whelan says of winning the contest. “I’m absolutely humbled by the attention my art has received. From the moment they told me I won, my whole life has changed, and I am so grateful for everything that has happened.”