Realpolitik as Art
When was the last time you stood before a piece of art and felt something flutter inside you? Did you buy the piece? Why not? Cost prohibitive, right?
For Toni Hitchcock, age 37, this is a problem. An even bigger problem is how countless people in her town of Culpeper feel excluded from the art world because of cost, time, and fabricated divisions between the artist class and everyone else.
Culpeper is working class and poor, in relation to the rest of Northern Virginia, with a medium income one third of affluent Fairfax and Loudoun counties which clock in around $100,000.
“There is a voice in Culpeper residents that hasn’t been tapped,” says Hitchcock. “People everywhere are struggling to find their voice in a very loud world. I want to support local people who feel disenfranchised, who feel shut-up, like there is so much going on inside them and no way to get it out. I want to do this by encouraging them to create art.”
Hitchcock is a full time artist who describes her paintings, drawings, and sculptures as “fantastical, metaphorical, weird, and fun.” She’s employed by the State Theater of Culpeper and she knows firsthand how many people in town are too busy putting food on their table to visit art openings. And she’s witnessed how government funded financial help for artists come with strings attached. You have to be “really avant-garde or you have to be really traditional. And you have those of us in the middle applying for grants and not getting them because we just kinda exist in a no man’s land.”
Hitchcock wants to change all of this starting with how art is defined in her community. She’s curating a show this August through September featuring Star Wars-themed artwork and welcomes artists ranging from established exhibitor to burgeoning beginner. She hopes a modern theme like Star Wars will entice all mediums and artists from across the spectrum. “I want to see more than the same people that have been exhibiting the same style of traditional landscapes and Americana. I want the people who would say ‘why would I go to an art show like that’ to actually go to an art show like that,” says Hitchcock.
She also established Culpeper’s Free Art Friday to bring no-cost artwork to residents. Each Friday she places her artwork in baggies and pins them to public areas. “I was doing Free Art Friday and then my youngest son died. As part of the healing process I got really involved in it. Something to put smiles on people’s faces so I start doing these little monsters. I like the idea that we all have a monster in us and to make it something positive.”
Hitchcock is on a mission and she won’t give up sharing with people about the importance of artistic creation. “You can’t let life overwhelm you,” she says, “Don’t let it be this big, dark hole.”
How do you deal with harsh criticism? Have you ever had a surprising comment? Where?
At first, it’s hard to not let harsh criticism sting and take one down a couple notches, especially when it’s toward work into which you’ve poured your entire being. That being said, I try to learn something from it—where is the person coming from, how are they perceiving my work? Is it a valid criticism?
Do you have any rituals?
I have started to develop some rituals in my life and with my art, but they are very private to me. I will say that they provide clarity when much needed, and help me to focus my efforts.
What are you thinking about in the studio?
In the studio, I try not to think about too much beyond what is in front of me. I set music to play that matches the mood of the art, and I narrow my sights to the work at hand. Some days this is easier than others; my brain has a tendency to run on thought tangents and get lost in them, and I need to make a concentrated effort to reel them back in.
How do you know when you’re done?
When something clicks. Even then I have to fight the urge at times to go back into the work and polish it further, try to push it more, but generally I just *know*. I look at it, and feel a certain satisfaction—I don’t have the nagging thought in the back of my brain that suggests that something is awry anymore. At that point, I call it good.
Who are your three favorite artists?
Only three?! Well… Right off the top of my head, I will say Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymous Bosch, and H. R. Giger. That’s in no order, and tomorrow the list will be different.
Your greatest success and worst failure?
My greatest success thus far is instigating others to make art. I count it as a huge success every time I can encourage someone to find their creative side and run with it, no matter the medium. My worst failure so far has been losing faith in myself as an artist. I failed myself for a time, and I plan to never let that happen again.
What part of NoVA do you visit for inspiration?
My mother’s house backs onto parkland that runs along the Occoquan River. I have found inspiration walking those trails, being surrounded by sunlight and trees and formations of rocks. I also take-in art shows, music shows, and time with friends for inspiration. I seek out creative-minded people to be around, work alongside. This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like, but I want to change that.
Have you ever regretted selling a piece and why?
I can’t help a small bit of regret every time a piece leaves me. I get attached to them—each piece of art I make carries a piece of me. It is a lesson in impermanence though, one which I’ve learned to embrace both in life and in art. I started giving art away along with selling it as a result, and it warms my heart to know that those pieces are finding homes with people who love them.