As Powell High School art students have worked to create replicas of historic sites of Washington, D.C., they’ve received messages, memorabilia and donations from around the country.
But an unexpected delivery arrived Tuesday.
“The First Lady and I enjoyed seeing the picture of you working on a White House model, and we think it looks terrific!” wrote President Donald Trump in a letter addressed to PHS students.
Longtime art teacher Jim Gilman called it “a very nice surprise.”
“When we received the letter from the White House, I was honestly in complete shock,” said Mckenzie Clarkson, a PHS junior. “I couldn’t believe that the small high school I go to in little Powell would get this much attention just from our art program. It’s great.”
Students took pictures of the president’s letter to share with family and friends.
“They were more excited about the letter than I thought they would be,” Gilman said. “It’s fun to see the excitement in their faces when they hold the letter.”
Since the beginning of the school year, PHS art students have been working on creating a Blackhawk helicopter as the school’s latest large-scale 3D art project. The Blackhawk keeps with the past projects’ transportation theme, as students have created a space shuttle, locomotive, submarine and other projects in recent years.
Gilman said they wanted to present the Blackhawk in its various roles, including as a medevac with the 101st Airborne Division and in Gulf Coast rescue efforts.
By recreating scenes of Washington, D.C. — with the White House and Washington Monument — the students can showcase the Blackhawk in its VIP role: as a transport for the president as VH-60 White Hawk Marine One.
In October, Gilman emailed the White House with the progress of the students’ art project. When President Trump visited Montana in the run-up to November’s election, Gilman asked that the president consider making a side trip down to Powell with Marine One so PHS students could get some good reference photos.
“I really didn’t think we would get such a visit, but it’s always nice to dream ‘bigly,’” Gilman said.
He received an automated reply email, but nothing further — until Tuesday’s letter.
Gilman has heard other people also sent pictures of the PHS project to the White House, which he said is “very rewarding, knowing others have reached out on our behalf.”
“It was very exciting to see that he and the first lady got to see those pictures,” Gilman said. “Hopefully, we can get him some photos of the finished display before the end of the school year.”
In the letter, Trump said he recently learned about the students’ efforts and the time they dedicated “to building tremendous replicas of some of our Nation’s most iconic and historic sites.”
“We are continually inspired by the creativity of our Nation’s talented students and admire your teamwork in accomplishing these tasks,” the president’s letter continues.
PHS students said they’re inspired by the attention.
“Seeing that our president shows such high interest is going to push us to create bigger, better things that in turn will represent the significance of our high school,” said Colby Bennett, a junior.
Working on the 3D projects “gives a different experience not everyone gets to have, and we’re all thankful for the opportunity,” Bennett said.
Willie Cannon, also a PHS junior, said Gilman is a big part of helping students’ projects gain recognition, as the teacher regularly posts photos online so people can track the progress of each year’s project.
“Being able to see this get recognized by people around the world is a great experience for everyone that works on these projects,” Cannon said.
Cannon said he also appreciates all the support from the community and everyone at PHS.
This year’s project has cost more than $2,600, but Gilman said the entire amount has been covered by donations from local businesses and an online community that follows the PHS art projects.
The online backers are “always incredibly generous with not only monetary donations, but tools, knowledge and advice,” Gilman said. “These projects and their continued success would never be possible without that kind of support.”
Students said they also appreciate Gilman’s support and guidance; Cannon called him an “amazing teacher.”
Clarkson, meanwhile, said she is “honestly blessed to be a part of such an amazing program.”
“The art program we have is one of a kind from the big projects, taxidermy, to the small individual projects,” she said. “It’s like we are one big family that helps out with everything.”
As students continue to work on the Blackhawk project in coming weeks, they’ll make sure to find just the right spot to display the president’s letter.
“We’ve already been working out plans for a display plaque for it,” Gilman said.