‘Still: The Art of Noticing’: Coffee-Table Book All About ‘Placefulness’

When Twin Cities artist Mary Jo Hoffman challenged herself to photograph nature every day, she didn’t foresee the midlife hobby becoming a 12-year commitment
An example of Mary Jo Hoffman's work
An example of Mary Jo Hoffman’s work

Mary Jo Hoffman

It takes a certain level of commitment to turn a one-year challenge into a daily practice. Now, 12 years later, with no end in sight, Mary Jo Hoffman has done just that by recording the beauty of nature in one photograph a day. 

Part philosopher, part photographer, part naturalist, and all artist, Hoffman debuts her first book, “Still: The Art of Noticing,” May 1—and the result is so many stunning visuals of our bioregion. A coffee-table book, it features 275 of the Twin Cities artist’s signature images woven through six personal essays. The work reminds the reader to slow down, notice, and be still. Her simple style of shooting subjects on a white background invites readers to explore the beauty and complexity of nature. 

Over a decade ago, Hoffman, a retired aeronautical engineer turned naturalist artist, planted the seeds of “Still” with a daily creativity challenge, all while walking her dog. She defines her work: “It’s nature. It’s infinite. Something’s going to be interesting.” We caught up with Hoffman when her book debuted.

How do you describe yourself? Are you a photographer? Are you a naturalist? Are you an artist?  

Finally, after 12 years, I’ve gotten used to the word artist. And now my publisher is using the word author-artist, which I find interesting. It took me a long time to get used to the word artist. Not every day can be artful. And so, a lot of the times I’m just documenting my place. This is what’s happening here right now. I’m a naturalist, documentarian naturalist. And then when inspiration hits or when I have extra time in the day, I try to be as artful as I can. I’m all those things. I understand that not every day my images are artful. I don’t think they can be every day, at least not for now. But I am now comfortable with that term, artist. I don’t know if that matters. If it’s artful to you, it’s art. If it’s not artful to you, call it whatever.

"Still: The Art of Noticing"
“Still: The Art of Noticing”


How do you describe the book?

I haven’t done that yet. There’s the published copy of 275 images from my 4,000-image archive and then six personal essays. I wrote the essays first and then picked the images to illustrate the essays. The essays tell the story of how I started and what I learned from the project. The final essay, “A Total Work of Art,” is about living life as a work of art. “Still” went from being a daily creative challenge I gave myself to this way of living in the world through this exquisite attentiveness, which became a kind of mindfulness practice. Every day, I had to be present for at least part of the day to find a subject. And so, it became this life-affirming thing. I didn’t want to stop, but then it evolved—the lessons I learned from dailiness, from mindfulness, which I now call placefulness.

I think that when you love what you do, it’s so deeply personal to you. Beyond technique, has it gotten easier for you over the years?

Yeah, the super interesting thing is—and this still dumbfounds me, and I still don’t have insight into this part of it—but I started the project to teach myself composition. I thought, “OK, I’m going to play. I live in this natural setting. I have to walk the dog every day. Nature is accessible to me, and it’s also my passion. But I’m going to arrange this stuff every day and photograph it.” The photographing takes minutes. Once I’ve arranged it, the photographing is almost just a documenting. There’s really no craft or art in photography. So, of all those titles you talked about earlier, photographer is the one I’m probably most uncomfortable with, just because all I’m really doing is capturing the subject. I started to teach myself composition, and 12 years later, composition still eludes me. But what has gotten significantly better is the art of seeing, or the art of noticing. So, I can take a walk, and I will always find something to photograph.

There is an immediacy to your work because the subjects are picked and plucked by you—it’s personal. What is the story you’re telling with those images?

The idea behind “Still” was just to take a moment: Look at this one simple thing. Look how beautiful it is. Just take a pause. Just take a moment. That’s [for] the single subjects, and I do a lot of those, but the assemblages were my personal challenge to play with composition, and so those were different.

I always knew I didn’t want to do only botanicals. Like, the other day, I did a butterfly, a Black Swallowtail chrysalis. And then a few weeks ago, I did a deer spine that I found in the woods. It wasn’t a great photo, but I did find this entire deer spine, and I didn’t capture it very well that day. It’s still on my kitchen floor because I want to capture it better. I want to surprise my followers; I want to mix it up. I want some days, assemblages; some days, a single subject; some days, animals, plants, flowers.

There is a sacredness to what you do in the creative process. You call on your talents, and you call on something greater than you. As a photographer and now an author, and continuing in that vein, what lessons have you learned about your process over the years?

I’ve learned that maybe I’m a marathoner and not a sprinter. It’s ironic because people say, “You must be disciplined to do this every day for 12 years.” When they say that to me, I’m like, no, if I was disciplined, I’d lose weight. What makes you think I’m disciplined? But what I am—and this is different—is committed. When I decide to do something, I do it. And I decided to do this.

The author-artist, Mary Jo Hoffman
The author-artist, Mary Jo Hoffman

Mary Jo Hoffman

What do you want the reader to appreciate in the book? 

I want anyone who has creative aspirations to be inspired by this practice because it was low-tech, intentionally simple, done by a self-taught artist after a midlife career change. I didn’t go to art school. I used to be an engineer. I used to work [in] corporate, and I was able to do this thing and make that transition using this very simple, one-a-day challenge kind of concept. I want that to be inspiring for anyone who has creative ambitions.

And then the other takeaways, for all the nature lovers and gardeners, is to sort of pause, look a little deeper, you know what I mean? Just slow down and notice. Look beyond the ordinary. Don’t just notice the flowers when they’re in bloom. Notice them as they emerge, when they’re blooming, when they’re dying back, and even when they’re dormant in winter.

Minnesota Monthly is dedicated to the Spirit of Minnesota. What does that mean to you?

This is a subject super near and dear to our family. I love Minnesota. I absolutely love it. I told my kids when they left for college—one went to California, one’s in New York—I said you will learn never to be ashamed of being from Minnesota. And you will learn eventually that it’s your superpower. I tease them because I say we grow the talent for the two coasts. We grow sane, smart, healthy people here that eventually migrate to the two coasts. But this place is special. There’s that whole Midwestern “you’re not sophisticated” bias, but they soon learn, no, it’s a superpower.

I just had a funny thought yesterday; I don’t even know why it popped into my mind, but I was thinking about casserole, Minnesota hotdish. It’s maligned as Midwestern food. It’s cheesy carbs in a casserole. It’s symbolic of our collective, the Scandinavians that came here, and that was the church basement offering, the hotdish. And it’s symbolic of those now. They came with a certain collective mindset that is part of Minnesota, and it’s part of what sets us apart from the rest of the Midwest. 

I think it comes from the harsh winters. We have to have each other’s back because the weather is bigger than all of us. That’s not true in a lot of places. I just thought it’s this sort of very quiet collectiveness about the place and the natural beauty. I think it’s a special place.

Jerrod Sumner is Minnesota Monthly’s aesthetic editor. His work covers all things local in the maker community. He is sought after for his understanding and promotion of the modern, American-made maker movement, and is a contributor on FOX 9 Good Day, sharing stories and goods. Follow him on Instagram @mrjerrodscott.