- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) - Toni Hitchcock gives away art to create happiness even as she copes with the sudden loss, to suicide, of her 13-year-old son.

“My other two children and I were in the house when it happened so I have a lot of anxiety and depression as a result,” said the Culpeper artist during a recent interview in a downtown coffee house.

To generate sunshine, and in hopes of making the world a better place, Hitchcock concocts what she calls, “little monsters,” tiny whimsical drawings in ink and colored pencil, in honor of her son, Vincent, a Culpeper Middle School student who took his own life Feb. 5.

“I love monsters,” she said. “I’m big into Godzilla and when my youngest son died, that was a hard blow. I gravitated back to youthful art and started doing these monsters as a way of coping.”

Every Friday morning, weather permitting, 36-year-old Hitchcock takes to East Davis Street, scotch tape in hand, with a half-dozen or so pieces of art, including her fanciful monsters, and pieces contributed by other local artists. Each is lovingly enclosed in a plastic Ziploc bags with a paper message, “FREE ART! TAKE ME HOME!”

In high-traffic areas, Hitchcock tapes the creations to a brick wall, a bench or a newspaper box, and then continues on her way, often times long gone by the time some stranger comes upon the art and receives it. It’s been a few months since she brought the global Free Art Friday movement to Culpeper, and it’s been cathartic on many levels. Losing Vincent generated many positive messages from his friends about the positive impact he had on their lives during his short life, said his mom.

“It makes you reevaluate your own attitude toward those around you,” Hitchcock said. “One of the things that’s really prompted this was wanting to put smiles on people’s faces. The monsters are kind of funny, they’re kind of goofy-looking and I like that.”

Creating art gets her out in the community and purges thoughts she’d rather not think. It also serves as a mirror.

“All the little monsters are funny and cute, but all of them have little circles around their eyes because I’m tired,” Hitchcock said. “They’re all reflections of me.”

Born in Hong Kong, the lifelong artist moved with her family to Connecticut as a 5-year-old before her father’s job as a mechanical engineer brought them to Northern Virginia, where Hitchcock graduated from Robinson High School in Fairfax. She spent a year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before getting married and starting a family. In 2002, out of necessity, they moved from Manassas to Culpeper, where it was more affordable to live and work was available.

Free Art Friday Culpeper is her way of making beauty more accessible.

“There’s a problem that a lot of art seems exclusive, and we’re a paycheck-to-paycheck family,” Hitchcock said. “We struggle a lot so I can’t buy what usually hangs in a gallery,” she said, adding, “Getting other artists involved is also my way of giving back to the community because there are a lot of artists in this area who aren’t coming out, they don’t think they have a voice and I want them to know they do.”

Hitchcock first heard about the worldwide movement through the Bunny Man Bridge Collective, an artists’ group in Fairfax, of which she is part. A London street artist, who goes by “My Dog Sighs,” launched the idea in 2006 as part of a Flickr page, and it’s since spread all over including Australia, Japan, Holland, Washington, D.C. and 26 states, including Virginia.

“I like that people could walk by and they may not see it while carrying on their everyday business,” said the English artist in a 2013 online article in, All in London . “But a few people do see it and do walk around with open eyes and spot these things. I like the idea that someone who is wandering past might find it and work out what it is.”

In Culpeper, a few free art recipients left thank-you notes for Hitchcock: “I love your art! Keep it up, please. Love, K,” read one. The appreciation means a lot to Hitchcock, who also creates “serious show pieces” and not just monsters, which she signs as her alter ego, Fuzzyzilla. She strongly feels there’s an audience for all types of art, and that community is vital to the effort.

“A lot of us come from a place of not really knowing where we fit in and use art as a way to introduce herself,” said Hitchcock, who has purple hair, and described herself as quiet and introverted. “I let art do the talking for me. Without community, we are talking to our self. There is real value in art, and if you take it away, you take away some of the beauty of your surroundings.”

The art conversation turned back to Vincent, who was always so fun loving, said his mother. His death gave her a lot of time to reflect. The boy who had just turned 13 didn’t leave many clues to his suicide, but Hitchcock believes bullying was involved.

“One of the conclusions I came to was life is too short to be serious all the time,” she said. “Humor is a way to work through the darker days.”

People are catching on to Free Art Friday Culpeper, with the long-established Windmore Foundation for the Arts helping to spread the word. Hitchcock recently joined the local group, and will be organizing classes and regular meetings for artists of all abilities and all media, according to Windmore Board President Fran Cecere. She said Windmore fully supports the local Free Art Friday effort.

“It fills the space between the art gallery and the street art,” Cecere said. “The goal is to make art accessible to everyone. Artists are able to contribute to the community and connect to new supporters of their art. As this project catches on, more people will be searching the downtown area and hopefully frequenting the restaurants and shops.”

She added that she felt there was an art movement happening in Culpeper.

“Ms. Hitchcock is showing us another avenue,” Cecere said.

Walking up East Davis Street in Mid-October, Hitchcock seemed to place the art in random spots, “whatever looks good,” she said. Along the way, mail carrier Cory Graves stopped to chat, calling the artist a family friend.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Toni. I love it,” Graves added of Free Art Friday. “It’s just wonderful to see. The monsters are so cute.”

Giving away art feels fun, Hitchcock said.

“It makes my day better and I hope it makes other people’s days better,” she said.

Most of the time, Hitchcock has no idea what happens to the art: “It’s a process and part of it is a letting-go process,” she said. “Every piece of art you make feels very personal. It teaches you a lot about letting go.”

Hitchcock hopes other artists in the community will join her effort. Those interested in doing so can message her at Free Art Friday Culpeper on Facebook. Nearing the end of her recent distribution, she cringed at the thought of letting go of a little green guy with antennas.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to let some of these go,” Hitchcock said. “It’s hard. I equate it on a very small scale to the Buddhist monks who do the sand paintings and they pour all of this effort into it and then at the end they sweep it all away. I try to get into the same kind of mindset of ‘do it for the love of it’ and then let it live its own life.”

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Information from: Culpeper Star-Exponent, https://www.starexponent.com

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