Dressed to Last: Erika Hitchcock

Local teacher and artist Erika Hitchcock transforms tragedy into triumph with a new business creating inspired bridal keepsakes

A hellish year shook Erika Hitchcock to her core. Besides the pandemic, for Erika, 2019 was deeply etched by the loss to mental illness of Paul, her beloved brother and best friend; the death of her cherished dog; and a horrific airport accident at the conclusion of a summer trip to France and Portugal. Filled with grief, doubt and fear, and unable to return to her teaching career, this artist and high school art teacher, turned inward.

The time to reflect on all aspects of her life—a 28-year marriage to Bill, the love of her life, two remarkable grown children, and a rewarding 17-year career in art education—fueled her recovery. As she contemplated the depth of the changes necessary to heal, she turned to what has always given her joy: making art. It has been said that making art is a hopeful act and, looking back, Erika traces the return of optimism to her artistic output.

Her mom, Pat Leuthard, bought her a slab roller to facilitate the production of large sheets of uniformly thick clay and Erika started making dress sculptures, “like 50 of them,” she smiles remembering.  She couldn’t stop. “It was the only time I felt solace…felt close to Paul.” The “empty dress,” a trope in contemporary art, has been popularized by the likes of Lesley Dill and Karen LaMonte. And just as these seminal artists have each created their own unique take, so has Erika.

After a little over a year had passed, the phoenix that arose from Erika’s ashes was another powerful symbol: the wedding dress. From both “wet” and “dry” studio spaces in her home—with its calm elegance and light-infused coastal vibe—Erika began making replicas of wedding gowns in clay as she remade her own life. And her fledgling business, StoneWear, took flight.

Noting that, during the height of the pandemic, “everyone was so focused digitally,” she feels she “launched before I was ready.” Recalling that she optimally needed another six months to refine her skillset, she instead embraced on-the-job training.

Having downsized from a large colonial home in Middle Plantation in Virginia Beach to an airy 2,400 square foot cottage in Shadowlawn, Erika credits the ease with which she organized her studio spaces to her years as an educator.

But the way these spaces fit seamlessly and organically within her beautiful home can only be credited to her artistic vision. She refashioned a downstairs room as her dry studio, office and showroom. And she reimagined an upstairs bedroom as her wet studio: home to the slab roller, worktable, test tiles, display shelves, lace and other notions; its closet neatly lined with glaze-filled shelves. She installed her electric kiln in the detached garage.

Each intensely handmade custom dress—sometimes commissioned by brides, but often by husbands as anniversary gifts—is sculpted from buff-colored Cone 6 high fire stoneware clay. Working from photo sources, Erika lovingly and laboriously fashions every detail of every dress for 25 hours and more.

“You have to problem solve,” she asserts about her multi-step process of sculpting, carving, embossing, firing underglazing, glazing, firing again, and embellishing. What began as more purist clay-and-glaze creations have become mixed-media works of art featuring hand painting, beading and other intricate embellishments.

“I am constantly testing,” Erika says of this journey to perfect her craft in ever more sophisticated ways.  Figuring out how to recreate draped fabric, intricate lace patterns, and barely-there translucency finds her “never bored.”  And she is “very content” having fully embraced the lifestyle afforded by working from home on her own, except for her new canine sidekick, Charlie.

Having learned photography for a teaching gig during a brief interlude in Northern Virginia, Erika takes all her own photographs. But no one truly works in isolation and Erika is quick to credit her daughter, Amanda, with logo and website design; her mom with sewing the velvet and satin bags in which each dress is packaged; and her husband with undying support. But there is another family connection: Erika donates a portion of her proceeds to local groups and organizations that bring “social opportunities to adults struggling to find normalcy and companionship while living with mental illness.”

Though she has immersed herself in every aspect of her reinvented work life, Erika enthuses without hesitation that her favorite aspect is hearing “the inspiring love stories” that emerge. And some stories—ones that find her—are so touching that they led to “Stronger than Stone,” a program through which the artist donates one of her sculpted gowns to very grateful and surprised recipients.

A wedding dress symbolizes many things. To Erika it symbolizes “… change—in its purest and most powerful form. It celebrates a promise that, in this world, you will never be alone.”

Learn more at StonewearCeramics.com.

See more of her designs in the gallery below.

Betsy DiJulio
+ posts and articles

Betsy DiJulio is a full-time art teacher, artist and curator with side hustles as a freelance writer, including for Coastal Virginia Magazine, and a vegan recipe developer, food stylist and photographer. Learn more on her website thebloomingplatter.com.

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