THE BIG READ ‘What a treat it must be, to be out and find a piece of art’

Holly V Maslen's artwork out for Free Art Friday at The Square Tower
Holly V Maslen's artwork out for Free Art Friday at The Square Tower
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Free Art Friday was started in Portsmouth by street artist My Dog Sighs and has become an international movement. We met some of the people who keep it thriving.

You’re out taking a walk on Friday morning – along Southsea seafront, or through the shopping precinct, or across Victoria Park – when something catches your eye on a bench, or tacked to a notice board, or even simply leaning against a lamppost.

Pieces by Freya Perry being prepared for a Free Art Friday drop

Pieces by Freya Perry being prepared for a Free Art Friday drop

You stop to have a look, and realise it’s a stunning little painting, or a piece of jewellery, with a note attached saying: ‘It’s Free Art Friday – please take me home and enjoy!’

Internationally renowned Portsmouth street artist My Dog Sighs, is widely credited with popularising the idea of Free Art Friday a decade ago and it has since gained attention across the globe.

A big part of the movement’s appeal is that anyone can take part – from professional artists, to hobbyists, to kids trying their hand at crafts for the first time.

Now Portsmouth and Southsea has its own dedicated Free Art Friday Facebook page which is run by Anita Stepnitz.

Pebbles by Sam Cannon ready for a Free Art Friday drop

Pebbles by Sam Cannon ready for a Free Art Friday drop

The 56-year-old, from Old Portsmouth says: ‘I first came across the free art movement on social media – it was Facebook, but it’s now on other platforms like Instagram as well. Here was a brilliantly genius idea – for an artist to give away a free piece of art and see if you get a response from the finder.

‘Equally, what a treat it must be, to be out somewhere and come across an original piece of art and be invited by the creator to keep it?

‘On further reading about the Free Art Friday movement I found that it originated through My Dog Sighs who felt it was open to anyone to progress his vision of what Free Art Fridays meant.

‘A quick trawl of the internet will find you FAF groups in America, Australia and in so many UK towns and cities.’

Can people by My Dog Sighs

Can people by My Dog Sighs

A big part of the appeal for Anita is the movement’s egalitarian nature, making art open to all.

‘The appealing thing about FAF is that anyone can take part in it – on the Portsmouth & Southsea FAF page is a drop by a class from St Jude’s Primary School. How creative was that teacher to get her class to drop their artwork in public and wait for the responses? I wish I’d done an art class like that when I was small.

‘The FAF movement captures the essence of what art is in a very big way. The purpose of art isn’t to be art – it’s to move, to be inspiring, depressing, exciting, to release feelings and thoughts that are too subtle and deep to put names to.

‘If you want to know if something is art, look at the way other people feel it. I sometimes hang around after I’ve put a FAF drop out for people to find and watch someone’s reaction to what they’ve found.

The photo of HMS Warrior which Hannah Wilson will be putting out for next week's Free Art Friday

The photo of HMS Warrior which Hannah Wilson will be putting out for next week's Free Art Friday

‘Have I surprised the finder? Definitely. Have I made their day with the offer of a free piece of art? Probably.

‘We’ve had the nicest acknowledgements from people who have found the FAF drops around Portsmouth.’

Anita now often contacts artists both locally and further afield to see if they would like to take part.

‘When I look on the internet, there is so much artistic talent out there. I love how the internet allows me to find an artist doing a FAF drop in Cornwall or New York and ask if they would like to do a FAF drop in Portsmouth for a change.

‘If the answer is “yes”, I’d like to think I’ve helped that artist expand their audience and maybe their Portsmouth audience will feel a little inspired by what they see. I’m really, really grateful to all the artists who have allowed me to use their art for a FAF drop.’

Full-time artist Holly Maslen lives across the water in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight where she has a gallery – Mini Big Art (open Thursday-Monday, midday to 4pm). The 42-year-old recently took part in FAF for the first time, and says: ‘I was e-mailed by Anita who said she thought my work was fabulous and would I send a piece over?

‘I had heard of the concept – an artist friend of mine had done things like this before.

‘A lot of artists get asked to contribute to things for free for exposure, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I know that’s not the point of this.

‘I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it again sometime.’

Sam Cannon from near Lyme Regis in Dorset has contributed hand-painted pebbles to FAF drops in Portsmouth.

‘These pebbles are only a little bit of what I do, but it mixes it up for me, and makes art affordable for everyone when I sell them.’

Again, she was contacted by Anita.

‘I can be soft and sentimental and I like doing something for no reward.

‘As an artist, you do get faceless people contacting you wanting you to do things for charity, but I do like to help if I can. Something like this though, I really like the ethos behind it – obviously you can’t give everything away but it’s something that can mean a lot to the person who picks it up and costs little to me. Anita is doing a great job.’

Freya Perry, from Southsea, has been a professional artist for ‘many, many years’ and used to have her own studio in Fratton.

Following an accident three years ago she was forced to step back, but as she says, ‘painting has been my therapy.’

The 71-year-old enjoys seeing people’s response to her work: ‘People see it and it can make my heart sing. Anita encouraged me to take part, and it’s lovely to think that my art is still going out there.

‘I’ve had some lovely messages from people who have found the art – one of the women was over moon.’

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You can find hidden gems from internationally renowned artists

Free Art Friday came about as a result of Portsmouth-based artist My Dog Sighs’ frustrations with trying to break into the world of art galleries.

The artist, Paul Stone, would put his crushed cans with their melancholic faces around the city – they were often snapped up within minutes.

He told The News in 2014: ‘When I started I would post a picture of the can online and give clues about where I’d placed it.

‘Three weeks in a row I found that within two hours they had been found and sold on eBay for £400 or £500. I was gutted because I’d turned Free Art Friday into Free Money Friday and I could have done that and made the money myself.’

In 2012 he appeared on the BBC’s The Culture Show with fellow artists Korp and Fin DAC to talk about FAF.

The artist now has a studio above The Wedgewood Rooms in Albert Road, Southsea, and his original pieces now sell for thousands of pounds all over the world. Whenever a new print-run is announced it sells out within minutes of going live.

But he has kept loyal to his local fans, and often keeps some of those prints back to sell direct from the studio to anyone willing to queue up when his door opens.

And he still takes part in FAF.

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‘It’s fun trying to work out where it is’ – find your own free art!

Amateur photographer Hannah Wilson is a keen advocate of Free Art Friday.

The cover of today’s Weekend magazine features a picture of one of the 30-year-old’s previous FAF drops when she left a framed photograph at Langstone Harbour.

‘I first came across Free Art Friday when I saw a couple of people on Instagram who were taking part in it.

‘I’ve only recently started doing photography and it’s a really competitive field.

‘It’s a hobby that’s becoming a bit more than that, I would like to do it full-time, but that’s going to be tough.’

‘I know my family and friends appreciate my work, but by doing this, it’s a nice way for other people to see it too.’

But it’s not just the leaving art out for others side that Hannah, who currently works in customer services for an energy company, enjoys – she’s also gone out on the hunt for pieces herself.

‘Me and my eldest, she’s eight, we go out looking for bits and pieces as well.

‘We’ve not found anything yet, someone always beats us to it, but it’s fun trying to work out where they are and then go looking for them.

‘My daughter does her own drawings and she’ll leave them out for Free Art Friday as well.’

* Hannah will be dropping a print of her photo of HMS Warrior – pictured – somewhere in the city this Friday, November 24.