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Required Reading: ‘Still: The Art of Noticing’ by Mary Jo Hoffman

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Required Reading: ‘Still: The Art of Noticing’ by Mary Jo Hoffman

June 12, 2024

What happens when you assemble and photograph found bits of nature every single day for 12 years and counting? Mary Jo Hoffman calls her art—as well as her blog and her new bookStill and writes that her practice is not only “a respite from the enervating buzz of contemporary life,” but a way of paying attention. “Finding each day’s subject requires me to live more often than not in a heightened state of awareness that makes me extraordinarily happy.”

I can relate: I have a similar daily habit that evolved from collecting leaves on dog walks (see How I Became an Accidental Botanical Artist). But though we admire much of the same foliage—I’m based in a bucolic patch of the Bronx and Mary Jo lives on three acres outside Minneapolis—our work is quite different.

Her photographs, whether of a single feather or an elaborate seed composition, have the satisfying completeness of solved equations. Mary Jo, you see, is a Stanford-educated applied mathematician and worked for 20 years as an aeronautical space engineer. “There will always be some engineering, more or less evident, behind what Mary Jo crafts of her materials, and what she crafts of herself,” writes her husband, Steve Hoffman, in the prologue to Still: The Art of Noticing.

Here, a look at some highlights from the book, which, when I last checked, was the best-selling volume from Phaidon Press’s spring catalogue.

Photography by Mary Jo Hoffman, courtesy of Phaidon Press.

Mary Jo in her element. In a recent talk she gave at the New York Botanical Garden, Mary Jo confided she often sets out on morning walks with a coffee cup in hand and uses that as her collecting receptacle.
Above: Mary Jo in her element. In a recent talk she gave at the New York Botanical Garden, Mary Jo confided she often sets out on morning walks with a coffee cup in hand and uses that as her collecting receptacle.

Still arose from a desire to develop a creative practice while her two kids were young. Mary Jo had just left her job as a rocket scientist and had spots of free time. Wanting to join an online art community, she decided to begin with photography, something she was already good at, and to spend time in nature. She committed to making her art daily for a year back in January 2012—and has never missed a day since. “It’s like my daily yoga; I find it too life-enhancing to stop.”

A flatlay assemblage of box elder samaras. Early on, Mary Jo set a few rules for herself: she sticks with a white posterboard background, works only with found nature—&#8\2\2\1;minimally manipulated&#8\2\2\1;—and, after photographing her creations, erases the slate.
Above: A flatlay assemblage of box elder samaras. Early on, Mary Jo set a few rules for herself: she sticks with a white posterboard background, works only with found nature—”minimally manipulated”—and, after photographing her creations, erases the slate.
Some of Mary Jo&#8\2\17;s assemblages are mind-bendingly complex; others, such as these maidenhead fern crosiers, are artfully simple closeups. &#8\2\20;I think to notice is to honor,&#8\2\2\1; she says.
Above: Some of Mary Jo’s assemblages are mind-bendingly complex; others, such as these maidenhead fern crosiers, are artfully simple closeups. “I think to notice is to honor,” she says.
Mary Jo often creates astonishing circular flatlays; this one is a collection of spring greenery.
Above: Mary Jo often creates astonishing circular flatlays; this one is a collection of spring greenery.

She has become highly attuned to the nuances of each time of year, and in the book delves into the ancient Chinese and Japanese concept of the 72 micro-seasons of the north.

Mary Jo typically works on her kitchen floor and says she&#8\2\17;s a &#8\2\20;big fan of just-enough equipment.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Mary Jo typically works on her kitchen floor and says she’s a “big fan of just-enough equipment.”

Her camera is “an entry-level Canon Rebel” and she’s had the same tripod for years. In the final section of Still, she describes a typical day, the behind-the-scenes work that goes into her creations, and her thoughts on composition (she’s a fan of the “hip bump” method of introducing a touch of surprise and randomness to an orderly arrangement).

A Morse code of balsam needles.
Above: A Morse code of balsam needles.

Committing to make something daily, Mary Jo points out, “lowers the stakes—the process is more sacred than the results.” It’s not about perfectionism; it’s about “not breaking the chain.”

After they&#8\2\17;ve been photographed, Mary Jo scatters her finds to the wind, but keeps prize pieces on her dining table and in a flat file.
Above: After they’ve been photographed, Mary Jo scatters her finds to the wind, but keeps prize pieces on her dining table and in a flat file.
Mary Jo&#8\2\17;s kids are now grown and it&#8\2\17;s her puggle who gets her out walking every day.
Above: Mary Jo’s kids are now grown and it’s her puggle who gets her out walking every day.
A constellation of red pine needles
Above: A constellation of red pine needles
Above: Still: The Art of Noticing from Phaidon Press is available in bookstores all over; it’s $45.51 from Alibris.

Mary Jo posts her daily creations on her blog, Still, and on Instagram @maryjohoffman.

Here’s more botanical art of all sorts:

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Frequently asked questions

Who is Mary Jo Hoffman?

Mary Jo Hoffman is an artist who assembles and photographs found bits of nature every single day for over 12 years. She is the author of the book 'Still: The Art of Noticing'.

What is Mary Jo Hoffman's blog called?

Mary Jo Hoffman's blog is called 'Still', where she posts her daily creations.

What is Mary Jo Hoffman's creative practice?

Mary Jo Hoffman developed a creative practice of assembling and photographing found nature daily when her kids were young, and she had free time after leaving her job as a rocket scientist.

What is the concept behind Mary Jo Hoffman's art?

Mary Jo Hoffman's art is about paying attention and finding joy and fulfillment in the process, rather than focusing solely on the results.

What kind of equipment does Mary Jo Hoffman use for her photography?

Mary Jo Hoffman uses an entry-level Canon Rebel camera and has had the same tripod for years. She believes in using 'just-enough equipment' for her art.

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