When you walk into the Barrel Room at Lost Rhino Brewing Company in Ashburn, you can’t help but notice the giant pieces of chalk art around the room.
Watching over it are the piercing eyes ringed by blue, curly hair of Wonder Woman, as played on the big screen by Gail Gadot.
The drawings – including Wonder Woman – are the work of Tonia Priolo, who said Wonder Woman was her favorite superhero when she was growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
Priolo admired her strength and her beauty, but there was another very practical reason Wonder Woman was her favorite character for make-believe.
“I have loved her since I was like 9 and I used to dress up like her,” Priolo said. “I didn’t have many toys, but I could have an invisible plane.”
Just as even art experts might not recognize Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi as the Renaissance artist known as Dontello, Priolo is gaining quite a reputation around Loudoun County by her nom de chalk – Chalkoholic.
Priolo was “discovered” by Lost Rhino founder Matt Hagerman.
“We needed some artwork for our beer signage and some events we were doing,” Hagerman said. “She started helping us with that, kind of on the side. It was very noticeable right from the start that she has a talent for it, and she had done a fantastic job of developing that talent over time.”
Priolo said she always wanted to be an artist – if the Wonder Woman thing didn’t work out. Her mother found a way to encourage Tonia’s interest while saving paper at the same time.
“She would give me crayons and just let me draw all over the walls,” Priolo said. “I can’t help but think that was what made me interested in the large-scale work I do now.”
Priolo started out going to art school – but her plans were sidelined in her first year of college.
“I went to Penn State for a semester, but I moved out of Pennsylvania when I was 18 and just traveled up and down the coast,” she said. “I had never even seen the ocean. I spent one summer living at Rehoboth Beach, and I was hand-painting and personalizing gifts for the kids at the beach. That was the coolest summer of my life.”
Priolo got married and moved to Northern Virginia, spending about eight years at home raising two children. Now divorced with one teenager and one tweener, she started trying to fit herself back into the workforce.
That opportunity came at Lost Rhino – but not right away. “I came in because they were advertising for a chalk artist,” she said. “They were only open a few days a week and I needed a full-time job. I just kept coming back and asking saying, ‘Are you ready, yet?’ It only took a month and they brought me on. They had expanded their hours, so I was bartending and managing and doing chalk art on the side.”
Her work draws a lot of attention and admiration from the Lost Rhino clientele. Her artwork quickly grew – both in number and in size – to the point where it seems to be everywhere around Lost Rhino. “We needed some boards made for the beers and she offered to do it,” Hagerman said. “We quickly realized that she had the talent to help stand our brand apart from everybody else.”
“I like to watch people, and they will look at it for a while and then they will touch them to see if it really is chalk,” she said. “I consider it a compliment.”
One of her favorite pieces is a huge drawing of rock singers Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington in the Barrel Room (also known as the pinball room because of the row of pinball machines along one wall).
“They were really good friends, and they both committed suicide within a year of each other,” she said. “We had a fundraiser for the American Society for the Prevention of Suicide and Roche On Air from DC101 was here doing a live broadcast. He put me on the air because he is a big fan of my work, and the next year I wrote and asked him what he would like me to draw. He said Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, so that’s what I did.”
In addition to her work at Lost Rhino, she was also asked to do interior art for the newly opened ChefScape in the Village at Leesburg.
“A friend of mine gave them my name and they asked me to do a couple boards for them,” Priolo said. “I ended up doing the whole place.”
Priolo said she will continue to accept outside commissions, but Lost Rhino will remain her home for the near future.
“This is my dream and this is what I have always wanted to do,” she said. “As soon as I walked in the door I knew this was the place where I wanted to be.”
For more information, visit lostrhino.com or find Tonia (Chalkoholic) on Facebook.