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Where to Find Inspiration? Maybe at Your Feet.

Photographer Mary Jo Hoffman reveals the beauty of everyday objects.

By Mike Vangel
Photography by Mary Jo Hoffman

On a Saturday morning in March, Mary Jo Hoffman stood in her kitchen holding a pair of wood-handled pruning shears, looking expectantly through her flame-orange glasses.

“Jack-jack, you wanna go for a walk?”

A gray-faced pug-beagle mix bounded out from the bedroom, passing cabinets and spare white walls decorated with the scattered ephemera Hoffman, MS ’89, gathers on their walks for her daily photo blog, Still. Over the mantel, where one might expect to see a mounted TV, hangs a 3-by-4-foot photograph of a coyote’s ear, snowflakes suspended in its pristine brown and red fur. “Roadkill,” Hoffman explained, clarifying the coyote’s origin (or conclusion, as it were). “I saw it on the side of the road while I was driving [my son] Joe to piano.”

If there is a representative image from the set of 2,500 photos Hoffman has published on Still, it might be this one — an otherwise forgettable object from the periphery of life, its beauty captured and elevated to the level of art by the simple act of noticing.

Hoffman happens upon much of her subject material — rocks, twigs, leaves, feathers, bones, flowers, the everyday detritus of nature — in the woods near her home in Shoreview, Minn. On this particular Saturday, Hoffman drove to a favorite local park, Jack copiloting from the console of the Prius.

Hoffman - frame

Hoffman - hand

Jack tore off up the trail; Hoffman followed more slowly, scouring the landscape. Something caught her eye and she clomped into a snowbank, pulling a branch down toward her shears. Clip, clip. A moment later, she held up her prize, a tiny tendril curlicuing off into a spiral. “I have a thing for tendrils,” she says, going back for another branch. Hours later, she layers her cuttings on a piece of white posterboard placed on a wooden table in her home studio. With a camera suspended from a tripod above the table, she plays with the assemblage, snapping pictures until she settles on an arrangement to appear on the blog the following day.

Hoffman - studio
Photo: Kim Cornelison/Midwest Living
PICTURE OF SUCCESS: Hoffman began her photo blog as a creative outlet, "and then Martha Stewart called."

Over the past eight years, this routine has become her new normal. In 2010, Hoffman left a 15-year career as an aerospace engineer at Honeywell to focus on her children, Joe, the youngest, and Eva, now a rising junior at Stanford. (Hoffman and her husband, Steve, run a real estate and rental property business, along with Steve’s side business as an independent tax preparer.)

She had always been “a creative dabbler,” Hoffman says, filling art journals with drawings, doodles, photos and more. As her kids grew older and she had more time, she began searching for a more substantive project. Then, while browsing the internet, she came across a mantra that became an inspiration: “Do great work, and put it where people can see it.”

Hoffman - shadows

Hoffman contemplated the routines of her life — she spent a lot of time outdoors and figured she could commit to photographing found objects from those walks and posting them online, as a creative exercise.

The blog’s design is minimalist, in keeping with what she calls her “Scandinavian aesthetic.” A stark white background frames most of her photos. She describes wanting the blog to contrast with the regular chaos of life and the internet, and instead be “my little carved-out space where there’s calm.”

The first picture — a thistle she picked up on a trail in France — posted on January 1, 2012, launching what was to be a one-year endeavor. “And then,” she says, “Martha Stewart called halfway through the year.”

Hoffman - greens

Hoffman’s blog and artwork rode what became a significant wave of popular interest in minimalism, and she was soon the subject of features in Martha Stewart Living, Midwest Living and other lifestyle magazines. At the three-year mark, a representative from Target Corp. called, which led to a deal to print her photos on a line of soft goods, such as accent pillows and duvet covers; West Elm was not far behind, eventually selling acrylic prints. Hoffman now spends a lot of time on licensing deals — on that day in March, she was negotiating one contract to create shadowboxes for a company in Texas and another to license photos to an adult coloring book company, and was working to create a Still-themed holiday line, including wrapping paper and felt ornaments.

Hoffman - seeds

“It hit the zeitgeist in a way I can’t explain,” says Hoffman. She now has a core group of people around the world who begin each day looking at her blog; 10,700 follow her work on Instagram. “People responded to the simplicity of it, this idea of looking at one thing at a time.”

Hoffman - magnolias

Chronicling her natural surroundings, Hoffman says, has changed her. She has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Minnesota’s flora and how it changes through the seasons. There is, necessarily, a sense of repetition (“I’ve done cattails probably six times; I’ve done milkweed six or seven times; I’ve done fall colors out the wazoo”). But she sees it as a challenge to remain ever more attentive.

As she and Jack circled the park, Hoffman scanned the drab forest surroundings for certain colors — you just have to let things catch your eye, she explains, “like red osier dogwood, or highbush cranberry” — and, suddenly, where everything had been muted and brown a moment before, shades of red appeared. Other times, she stopped in the middle of the path to photograph the leaves and sticks trapped in the ice beneath her feet. 

Hoffman - Jack

By the time she’d completed a short loop, Hoffman held a bundle of sticks and vines, enough for several photos. It had been a successful morning, and she and Jack were nearly back to the car when Hoffman spotted something else.

“Look at that,” she said, pointing to a stalk a good 6 feet tall with wrinkled leaves that looked like clumps of kale. She lightly traced their elegant drooping arcs with her finger. “Oh, that’ll just pop.” She bent down and grabbed the plant at its base, twisting it back and forth until the whole thing pulled free. Satisfied, she added it to the collection in her hand and joined Jack back on the path where he waited, cold but happy, ready to go home.

Mike Vangel is a writer in Minneapolis and a former assistant editor of STANFORD.

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