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The DRESS DESIGNER



Jennifer Hitchner

One of Jennifer Hitchner’s oldest creations of wearable art is fashioned from maps, put together while a student in Hawaii. ROB DOWNEY PHOTO

BY ELLEN GILLETTE

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Some eyes, however, see even further. Beyond the common, beyond boundaries, recognizing potential in form and function where others see only … baseballs?

Although Port St. Lucie artist Jennifer Hitchner’s first love is painting, her claim to fame is wearable art, particularly a dress she designed and created from – yes – baseballs. As a fundraiser for Port St. Lucie American Little League, she created the dress from 150 baseballs, supplied and signed by the Mets.

The dress, which raised more than $900 for the local youth league, was not her first venture into the world of wearable art. As an art major at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, she constructed a dress from nautical maps of Pearl Harbor.

A collaborative project was fashioned from electrical equipment. The dress did more than make a unique fashion statement: The wearer could also charge her iPhone wherever she went, any time she chose.

Hitchner took a variety of art classes around raising a family. For two years running, she worked as a special effects makeup artist for the Zombie Pub Crawl in Waikiki.

“Face designs ranged from burns, cuts with staples and/or stitches, broken bones, torn skin, lacerations, puncture and bullet wounds, flesh eating diseases, exposed bones and more. The more gruesome, the better!” Hitchner was also an extra on the set of Hawaii Five-0 and assisted the makeup artists in creating the right look for burn victims.

In order to help support the family, Hitchner started a successful paint-and-sip business called Art in Disguise, primarily targeting military wives (Hitchner’s husband was stationed in Hawaii with the Coast Guard). For a fee, Art in Disguise provided canvasses, supplies (including wine) and instructions on reproducing a chosen design. It was a profitable venture until the family relocated to Port St. Lucie. Soon, income from Art in Disguise trickled to “income in disguise” when her associate in Hawaii literally ran off with supplies and profits.

Although she considered starting a similar business in this area, the timing wasn’t right. She was unsettled, unsure of her direction. One evening as Hitchner was relaxing in the bathtub, her thoughts meandered to promotion. Naturally quiet and unassuming, she would have to change in order to establish herself as an artist.

Like many, she’d experienced setbacks. In addition to the ill-fated Art in Disguise business, she had to give up her dream of a fine arts degree, at least for the time being. Perhaps instead of training to be be an artist, she needed to be an artist. Or perhaps she had to put aside the idea of painting for profit and settle for a more reliable income?

She didn’t want to turn her back on creativity altogether. Each year, she made Halloween costumes for her three children – a Hawaiian princess, Maori warrior, a sugar skull sculpture. Perhaps, she could get her art fix with things like that and still do the occasional painting.

Suddenly, a thought occurred. The New York Mets hold their spring training in Port St. Lucie. If she could tie in wearable art with sports memorabilia, maybe local fans would buy raffle tickets to benefit a local organization. Her sons played Little League … maybe that? It was worth a shot.

There were a 1,001 details to attend to. Design. Materials. Was it even possible to get as many baseballs as she’d need for the dress she envisioned, signed by Mets players? To her delight, Mets marketing representative Kyle Gleockler loved the idea, responding quickly to her request, saying, “Pick up as many as you want.”

Soon Hitchner had 200 baseballs signed by more than 24 New York and St. Lucie players. Tearing them apart, she sewed the leather covers over a dress shell with the $1,500 industrial sewing machine she purchased to handle the heavy leather.

It was a challenging project.

“At one point, I was in tears,” she says. “I kept making design changes until it was just the way I wanted it to look.”

After the dress was completed, Hitchner displayed it at every 2015 Mets home game, selling raffle tickets to fans. On April 1, 12-year-old Hailey Meyer wore the dress as she threw out the first pitch of the Mets game against the St. Louis Cardinals. During the seventh inning, Missy Ventucci’s winning raffle ticket was chosen out of nearly 200.

The story of the baseball dress went viral. ESPN was abuzz. It made the Bleacher Report. A website in France even reported on it. “It was pretty crazy for about a month,” Hitchner says.

When Fox’s Mattie-Lou Chandler tweeted something negative about wearing a dress that still had the remnants of pitchers spit on the baseballs, Hitchner responded. The result? A request for a dress from PGA’s Rickie Fowler.

Cobra Puma sent materials for the dress: boxes and boxes of shoes and golf tees. “That was the most difficult to design,” Hitchner says, “but it was taken to the U.S. Open in 2015 to be auctioned off for charity.”

Hitchner, who once made a dress out of panty liners, is open to just about anything.

“I don’t mind creating items for free for a good cause,” she says. She also has donated more than 30 canvasses for possible fundraisers locally.

The desire to help also led her to accept a job as a grant writer/developer for Whole Family Health in Fort Pierce. “The genuine care I see our doctors and staff give to clients inspires me. I can’t treat them, but I can use my talents to help.” Hitchner is planning a gala art show to raise money for the clinic’s prenatal mothers with HIV.

Hitchner has other plans that involve almost any material! In the fall, she attended Illumination Woman Retreat in Jupiter. “Listening to other women describe their challenges and victories helped me focus in several areas, including my art.” Visit her website at www.artsocki.com and www.JenHitchnerArt.com or check out her Facebook and Twitter accounts.



JENNIFER WYSOCKI HITCHNER
Age: 39
Lives in: Southbend area of Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Development and grants specialist for Whole Family Health Center
Family: Sean, 16, Finn, 8 and Stella, 6
Education: Attended University of Hawaii - Manoa for Fine Arts
Hobbies: Spending time with my family and friends, cooking
Who/what inspires me: “The main source of my inspiration comes from my love for the sea, and the beauty of nature. I often find myself daydreaming and getting temporarily detached from reality to initially create the painting in my head.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I have attended more than 20 Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band concerts. In fact, my son Finn is named after the song Fins.”