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A Place to be Still: Interview with Mary Jo Hoffman

Mary Jo Hoffman has an eye for intricate simplicities all around us – little marks of creativity that beg us to slow down and notice. In fact, this is exactly what happened to me when I first encountered her Instagram feed. I wanted to stay. To slow down, and to notice. We were delighted she agreed to chat with us about her art practice, the art of noticing, and the advantages of being a female artist at this point in history. 

When did you first self-identify as an artist? Tell us a little bit about how your identity relates to your art.

Such an interesting question. As I look back I guess I would summarize my journey this way: Ever since I was in my 20’s I would probably have described myself as a lower-case “c” creative. I took art classes, I kept visual journals, and I was a pretty good amateur photographer. Around 2010 I decided I wanted to be part of the online creative community. So when, in 2012 I launched STILL blog, and committed to making, and sharing, one image a day online, it was then that I started thinking of myself as a capital “C” Creative. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I started self-identifying as an artist. And that mostly happened because other people started using that word for me, and when I would push back (“Ohhh, I’m not really an artist…”) they would push back in turn and insist that whatever I was, it met the rest of the world’s criteria for the word “artist,” regardless of whether it met mine. Eventually, I was making enough art and selling enough art, that it became obvious, even to me, that I had become a capital “A” Artist. Your question makes me wonder, why are we so reluctant to use the title artist? And are women more guilty of this than men? I think that reluctance is both good news and bad. The bad news is that artists and creatives chronically undervalue themselves and their work. But on the good side, I think it shows that even in as commercially driven a society as ours, there still remains a mystique and a kind of awe surrounding art and artmaking that makes us properly hesitant to tread too lightly or thoughtlessly across that threshold.

 

What other artists, writers, or themes have influenced your own artmaking? 

I’ve had three very different kinds of influences on my creative work.

First, and most obvious, were nature-based artists like Karl Blossfeldt and Andrew Goldsworthy. I was also attracted to the rich history of botanical print art in general.

The second major influences on my creative career were two well-known contemporary artists: Austin Kleon and Lisa Congdon. Kleon’s book, Show your Work, gave me the courage to start STILL blog. And Congdon’s early series “A Collection a Day” was the inspiration. I discovered them both in the same year, 2010, and together they gave me what I needed to get started.

Lastly, I have been very inspired in a more general sense by the world of design. I am particularly sympathetic to Scandinavian minimalism and Japanese wabi-sabi. I devour all kinds of design literature—from research, to philosophy, to practice. Right now, for instance, I can’t get enough of Japanese designer Kenya Hara’s ideas and work. It is easy to see the Scandinavian and Japanese influences in my work.

 

Why does art in general matter in our current social, political, or global climate? How does your own art speak to a challenge (large or small) in the world today?

The truth is, I started STILL blog seven years ago as a very personal daily creative practice, not as any kind of social or political statement. But it clearly touched a collective nerve. People all over the globe responded to its calm simplicity. The idea of slowing down, being more present, looking at one thing, one ordinary thing, for just a moment really resonated with people. Clearly, people were yearning for little pockets of uncluttered stillness in their daily routine. And I’m sure that is exactly what I myself was craving when I designed STILL. It turned out that my specific craving was shared by many, which happens so often. Focusing on the specific in art nearly always appeals in some near-universal way.

In addition to creating a space for calm and beauty, I hope and believe that STILL has helped people see better, and appreciate more their own natural environments. I truly believe that the more people interact with their natural environment, the more likely they are to become stewards of those environments. And we need stewards of the environment now more than ever.

 

Who are your greatest champions? Tell us a little bit about your friends, family, or mentors.

My husband (@sjrhoffman) is by far my biggest champion. We have been married 30 years. For the first 15 years of our marriage I supported the family as an aerospace engineer. For the past 15 years he has been the primary income earner. He does tax preparation for 6 months of the year, and is a writer for the other six months. It is a set up that works well for us, and allows each of us to pursue creative work without the pressure of having to make that work commercially viable. It takes the pressure off the work, and lets it remain a little more pure and honest I feel. We call it self-patronage.

We also have two kids. Our daughter Eva is 20 years old and pursuing a design degree at university. Our son, Joseph, is 15 and is currently interested in nature and fashion. Both kids grew up seeing their parents making creative work a priority. At first I believe they were indifferent. But as they get older, they get more and more interested. Their growing appreciation, is in an unanticipated kind of validation.

I also try to be a good citizen in the local creative community in my hometown of Minneapolis. Because of my age, 54, I am more often than not asked to play the role of mentor, not mentee. But I do have a few local creatives that I regularly look for opportunities to collaborate with. Right now, my deep inner circle of local inspiration: @lizgrdnr, @mwmmpls, and @springfinnandco to name a few.

 

What advice do you have for young artists?

I paused to consider this questions, and realized that I have so many opinions about this, that I could go on and on. I immediately imagined this as a dinner table conversation with half a dozen creatives all with wildly differing opinions, but in the end I think most would agree on a few basic principles, and the debate would settle into a discussion on relative importance of each. My initial, non-exhaustive, list would look like this:

  • Develop your own personal eye/voice/ear. This takes a lifetime. So get started.
  • Practice every day. Every single day. No matter how short.
  • If you like your art, others will too. Trust this. Make art you like.
  • Learn how to edit your own work. Show only the best stuff.
  • Show your work. Put it where people can see it.
  • You will have to do self-promotion. Find a way to make peace with that.
  • Devour books, shows, museums, culture, nature, etc. Keep your well filled.
  • Ask forgiveness not permission. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission.
  • Remain curious. Ask how? And why? And what if? Ask what would it take?

That looks like the beginning of a manifesto to me. Hmmm…..

 

Anything else you would like to share about your story as a female artist?

There is no better time in history to be a female artist than right now. The internet and social media has democratized creativity and the arts. There are far fewer gate keepers than ever before. But, it also means there is a lot more competition and noise out there. If you are doing good work, it will get noticed. But persistence will be every bit as important as talent. Luckily, we women are good at persistence. I think we intuit “slow and steady wins the race” more readily than our male colleagues. I am excited to see what happens in the next 20 years. The doors have been flung open and it is time to step through.

 

 

 

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Follow Mary Jo on Instagram @maryjohoffman, and please visit her beautiful space, the Still Blog. You may also purchase prints of her work here.

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