An Interview With Jael Hoffmann
By Rachel Reid Wilkie
Jael Hoffmann is a metal sculpture artist living in the Northern Mojave Desert, just north of Los Angeles. Her rough, nearly primitive sculptures stand at highway’s edge like creatures in a mythic scene, their anointed god a sleepy chief who towers just west in the form of 12,132’ Olancha Peak. Large, wind-worn, lively on the land, they are in constant, animated banter with drivers who speed past, and all the more friendly and engaging for those who stop, stretch their legs, and stroll about the land. Rachel Reid Wilkie spoke with Jael on a gorgeous winter day following heavy snowfall in the Sierras.
RACHEL REID WILKIE: I see from the theatrical sweep of your sculptures that you are a complex storyteller, reflecting a lineal descent from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, with their beautifully embodied personalities of fairies, angels and prophetic beings. In that same spirit, there is a darkness imbuing both your work and your ideas. What, generally, is your inspiration for story, and how do you begin expressing that tale through metal and a torch?
JAEL HOFFMANN: My ideas are not so much driven by stories, but by observation of and immersion into states of being. In the past, these states were mostly dark, so demons were my prevalent symbol of choice. There’s resemblance with mythical creatures insofar that nothing is as it seems; everything mirrors internal landscapes. Images form unpredictably, be it through a sensation, a word, a thought. Not until the contours sharpen, does the urge to create push me into the workshop. Since there’s no sketch, the right frame of mind must prevail for this to happen, which again, is unpredictable.
WILKIE: Are you pulled toward myth, toward mythical creatures and their invariable expansion/distortion of truth? Or are you instead drawing on your own experiences as you move through life and encounter inspirational, enchanting, even vexing characters around you?
HOFFMANN: The search for truth is always on the forefront of ideas, sought through the question of ‘What does this mean?’ and followed by ‘What can be done about it?’ I’m resolved to a continual search for lightness. My work is more biographical than anything else, but with one eye veering towards the larger picture, towards how subtleties within manifest in general.
WILKIE: Speaking to the storylines within each sculpture, which often run deep and can at times be menacing, I also see a wicked sense of humor, fierce yet fresh, unforgiving but pure, bringing irony and satire to your tales. When you are conceiving and building your work, do you find yourself smiling or even outright laughing as you weld together pounds of metal behind your protective mask?
HOFFMANN: Yes, humor is a biggie; it facilitates access into the darkest corners. I do indeed smile and laugh when conceiving an idea, not so much during work, as the heightened state of focus carries me elsewhere. Here, it’s all about how to make it happen, get through technical challenges. I think there are more frowns than laughs behind my welding mask.
WILKIE: When you began as a sculptor, was your medium always a practice of using iron or discarded metals, or was your movement into this larger, three dimensional stage of your work due to the abundance of materials strewn everywhere about the land? Or, rather, perhaps there is a more practical answer here, being that these sculptures must withstand a life outdoors, surviving relentless winds and the merciless weather conditions of the high Mojave?
HOFFMANN: I started out making brass/copper/sterling silver jewelry. Somehow aesthetically pleasing forms morphed into miniature sculptures with a message. Dimensions grew with the realization that size matters, when there’s relevance. A large sculpture cannot be easily ignored. Using discarded metals had more to do with budgetary considerations, but I learned to love rust, despite its resistance to being torch-cut, and reusing just feels right.
WILKIE: I remember you briefly mentioning welding an art piece as the winds shook unrelentingly against your shed. The heavy metal door, if I remember correctly, blew off its hinges and struck you, knocking you clean out. Can you speak more to these trials as a female artist-warrior grappling with your tools, your medium, your equipment and your environment?
HOFFMANN: I live off-grid in an environment that can be paradise or hell. Every time I want to weld, a generator has to be pull-started, which means thinking ahead a couple of steps to consolidate all the welding, or as much as can be done at once. My workshop is not weather-controlled, and has no electricity, so either I limit my time there, or deal with high heat and cold (years ago I had to keep running inside the house to warm my hands and feet, after spending time in the workshop in winter). And of course 100 mph winds are an effectual reminder that our existence is but a speck of dust. All this boils down to heightened consideration to the environment, and my movement within it.
WILKIE: I’m looking now at newly installed solar panels and think how they must withstand winds that ever-threaten to rip them from their supports. Can you tell me a little about the hardships of living out on this open, wholly exposed terrain? The difficulties, for instance, of getting water, heat in the winter, or the very act of creating art through the necessary use of a generator?
HOFFMANN: Well, the solar panels have started veering to the side a bit, helped along by some gusts, so I have to reinforce them. The difficulties I am currently facing with getting well water into the house tank have to do with a generator that keeps breaking down. Upside is I learn how to fix things. The installation of a wood stove has made indoor living quite pleasant in the winter — not only can I move about without a down jacket, but sitting next to a fire promotes daydreaming. Transporting and cutting firewood does take time, but is much worth the effort.
WILKIE: You speak of one day living wholly off the land, of growing a garden that year-round supports you and your daughter: this despite the rabbits and desert rats that devour all, despite the withering heat of summer and months of winter temps that fall well below zero. I wonder, in the face of all that, if your art has become a proxy garden, of sorts, as you till the soil and the fruits of your labor — which just happen to be metal structures – flower across the land?
HOFFMANN: I haven’t yet given up on the idea of growing my own vegetables! But it is true that it takes fertile ground of a different kind to generate ideas. Part of the passion for art comes from living with continual forward and upward (and sometimes zig-zag) motion, so that conditions appear, which are conducive for ideas to pop up like flowers. Not that art is a goal; it’s rather a side effect of living, but nonetheless a powerful enhancer and sustainer of good moods.
WILKIE: Living in these extreme conditions, does the environment ever install within you a sense of fear?
HOFFMANN: Hysterical winds can stop my breath. I try to get through by imagining that I can calm them down, or divert their course. Whether it works or not is irrelevant, so long as it helps me cope. Other than wind, we’ve had some close encounters with lightning. We are surrounded by low growing brush, and the house is 12 feet tall with a metal roof. Blinding light and a thundering vibration that reaches your core are not uncommon during those days, not to speak of the ear-muting noise. Some stormy days can produce up to 20 lightning strikes in one minute, which makes calming the nerves almost impossible. Just last year, we had lightning rods installed on the roof, so that I might actually be able to sleep through a lightning storm. One way of dealing with this fear of dying is to just let it happen, as if to say, “Come and get me.” I’m not there yet.
WILKIE: Speaking of the elements, how is it working with fire?
HOFFMANN: I never take it for granted. The sound, sight, and feel of a cut that flows is transporting. I like that it’s not so much about what I want, but about how it works. I have to first bend to the laws of physics, before I can achieve a desired outcome. The flame wants to be composed of the right oxygen/acetylene mix, then the suitable size orifice has to be used for different gauge metal. Speed and distance from the metal determine whether a cut is going to be continuous or choppy, and it shows in the final piece – a perfect give and take.
WILKIE: You are a woman who enjoys silence. How do you balance the silence you seek with the noise created by the process of working metal?
HOFFMANN: I don’t listen to music when I’m in the workshop anymore. Working with generators and power tools, I have to be in tune with the sounds they make. A-rhythmical sounds can indicate a short, which could give me a dangerous jolt, or melt my tools, which has happened before the ‘no more music rule’. I cherish silence when out of the workshop, and when alone at home (with a teenage daughter music is a constant). There’s something to be said for allowing your undistracted insides inform your every move.
WILKIE: What has inspired you to plant your sculptures in the very land where they were conceived, then opening that land up to the public who are free to roam amongst the sage and between the sculptures, acquainting themselves with each piece, reflecting on them in the desert sun, constructing opinions and formulating ideas on one or the entire labyrinth of tales?
HOFFMANN: For the first few years of sculpture making I didn’t seek any sort of public exposure. During a process of unburdening, the ensuing abundance made appealing the creation of a free space for the public, albeit anonymously. Years later, a visitor left a note inside an interactive sculpture, requesting information about the artist. A conversation with my then 15 year old daughter convinced me to leave my website address in the garden, which led to many wonderful encounters (not least with the editors of Riot Material).
WILKIE: How important is it to you that the public comes to visit these pieces, experience them without any preconceived notions or foretold explanations? It is, in my opinion, a very generous act on behalf of an artist, where often seclusion and hermeticism is the norm, all the way up to the gate of the gallery or some other commercial space, where the work is then delivered before the public eye with pages of descriptive word that tell the audience how they should be looking at each piece. Whereas what I see here is the act of a mother who lets her children run wild through the untamed outbacks.
HOFFMANN: It is most pleasurable to have conversations surrounding art at the sculpture garden, with strangers, many of whom may not be gallery-goers. Quite a few visitors I talk to seek to understand my motivation, as well as my own interpretation of the sculptures. I am not averse to explanations of art, as they offer insights that can enrich the experience. Words can trigger imagination/sensibilities that may help the viewer immerse themselves in an idea. The objective for me is to reach out, so someone can reach in, and there are various points of contact. Those who prefer direct access to art can choose to ignore the written word.
WILKIE: You live here in Olancha with your only daughter. How is it raising a child alone in a land where work is scarce and income hard won?
HOFFMANN: You keep the overhead low, care more about time than money, and feel purpose running through your veins. My daughter and I live in a 550 sq ft home, with no partitions. It took time, but we learned to not only get along, but seek each other’s presence. Silliness helps.
WILKIE: Your mentioning of “presence” has me curious as to the methods you may or may not use to bring about such an upright, one-to-one engagement. Is there a practice you rely on for bringing presence and awareness into daily life?
HOFFMANN: Awareness, for me, has something to do with honing an internal dialogue. Our bodies know what’s going on, and we just have to consider them enough to inquire and respond to their needs. One way to enhance sensing is by instilling movement with breath (yoga works well, or meditation). Interesting thing about awareness is that it seems to open access to different layers of existence. There’s movement in the expanded spaces we enter in our daily lives through mindfulness, and with movement comes a chance to influence that which we now notice, examples include the realm of self-healing, creative endeavors, or decision making of any kind.
WILKIE: How have your creative activities inspired your daughter to live and experience her environment in a similarly creative way as yours?
HOFFMANN: My daughter, Noa, has a glass marble workshop, but she also excels in crafts that I have no patience for, like Origami and crocheting. We share a penchant for craft supplies, tools, and books. Her creative outpouring is completely self-directed, and very different from mine, but there’s mutual admiration, and we have collaborated on two metal sculptures, which were brought to life with her marbles.
WILKIE: Beauty is a concept that has been discussed and evaluated ever since the birth of mankind. Artists in particular have been obsessed with the idea of beauty, trying throughout history to articulate it via a myriad expressions, across cultures and through all religions. Beauty, naturally, is everywhere around us, seen either subjectively or not seen at all. How, as an example, does beauty reveal itself to you, or how are you continually trying to consciously be in its presence?
HOFFMANN: One day I observed moths buzzing around a bush. If you were to stop the moths’ motion every split second, it would have been a balanced, well-choreographed scene. Everything out there, in un-touched scapes, entails that perfect composition, in shape, color, texture, and/or movement, which to me is beauty. All wo/man-made efforts are variations on a copied theme.
WILKIE: You participated in the Women’s March on January 21st. How did the march excite you, energize you, awaken in you an activated self, one with perhaps even a new sense of community? And do you feel this sense of activation has had an impact on you as an artist?
HOFFMANN: It was a new experience for me to engage with a group that shares values about what constitutes a purposeful existence. But the march was just the seed in a process that is now beginning to grow. I signed up to be part of a local organization that will hold meetings, which will lead to activism of one form or another. Feels grand to take those guts that want to tie in a knot upon hearing contemptuous news, and offer them relief through action. As far as future artwork, we’ll see what the continuous fertilization of this ground has to offer.
WILKIE: How is your art already working as a form of activism, and I ask that question thinking of one piece in particular, that of the greedy monster who roars across the highway toward the new solar field recently planted without the community’s input?
HOFFMANN: I don’t know that Greed was motivated by activism, rather by an inner tension that was yearning for relief. I have fought the disrespect of a solar company towards our community, as well as the fast-tracking of this project on the county level. Olancha is a small town, without much traction, and I was one of the few citizens making noise. The only way to rid myself of a growing frustration was through making a statement, a big one, and so Greed was born. Some of my work may be related to external circumstances, but it doesn’t depict them. Greed is also a statement about power abuse in general, the ruinous force of self-interest.
WILKIE: When you express through your work a voice of political and social awareness, you do so often through whimsy and biting humor. An example would be the lecherous Cardinal, who stands, cap on head and in bold red, with the legs of four children dangling out from beneath his floating robe. How do you see this voice evolving as we move into what looks to be a particularly difficult moment on the national scene, with the newly appointed president seemingly ready to attack any and all who counter his reckless hand, so ready it seems to slice through the social-cultural fabric that at one time united us as a nation?
HOFFMANN: The sculpture you mention, Veil of Secrecy, formed in my head almost immediately after the sanctified pedophilia cases came to light. What blew my mind were not only the heinous acts of child rape, but the concerted efforts to perpetuate them for fear of membership/power loss. This process was called Veil of Secrecy, and so I saw a veil concealing the truth of a power-horny pope, who is gazing into the heavens in hopes of God’s truth-bending graces. Incidentally a new sculpture is in the works, which has to do with a regressive political atmosphere, propagated by D.T. (can’t even bring myself to spell out his name). But this time it is a sculpture of hope, depicting what is possible, rather than what is wrong.