The Mindful Harvest:Discovering Self and Nature Through Still Life Photography
- Words by Emy Crane Majority of Images by Mary Jo Hoffman -
“You want to know the secret? Make good stuff and put it where people can see it.”
Mary Jo Hoffman, creator of the blog STILL, recites this Austin Kleon quote with unrestrained delight. Her hands, earlier molded together, are now in movement towards me with palms open as if she is handing me the words. I take this gesture as a gift and scribble down the name of the book she references, Show Your Work! “Austin Kleon inspired me to share something small every day.”
In 2011, Mary Jo and her husband, Steve, decided to move their family from Shoreview, MN to Languedoc, a small rural village in southwestern France. Their two children, Eva and Joseph, were attending L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion school in St. Paul, MN at that time and were conversational in French, but not fluent. “Steve and I wanted to provide our kids with an opportunity to cement their language acquisition.”
The Hoffman’s saw the move as an academic and cultural adventure for their children, and simultaneously a chance for themselves to practice for the next phase of their life together—an early retirement where they would be able to discover their true crafts.
Prior to the family’s relocation to France, Mary Jo had transitioned from an aerospace engineer to the equally demanding role of stay-at-home mom. Meanwhile she had been privately sketching and dabbling in photography as a hobby for years.
Mary Jo opens a journal, which lies on the wooden table before her, and brushes her fingers over the handmade paper. Her thoughts and sketches are married on the pages marked with bold ink and muted, watercolor hues. “I kept the majority of my artwork hidden on my computer or in journals stashed away on the bookshelves.”
It wasn’t until her time abroad that Mary Jo found the inspiration to unveil her creativity and put into perspective the words she had read of Kleon.
On January 1, 2012, Mary Jo challenged herself with a goal to spend the new year passing through life with a heightened awareness. She vowed to pay more attention to nature and began to forage for raw and ordinary natural objects as she explored her new home of Languedoc. Each day she’d place her findings on the kitchen table or on white paper she had laid on the floor in the bedroom to achieve the perfect diffused light. She’d then thoughtfully craft an assemblage of the objects on her blank canvas and photograph her design to share on her blog, STILL. “I assumed that it would just be this obscure, daily exercise—literally like doing warm ups before a workout—but it soon became much more to me. It became a true life enhancer.” After 7 months in France, Mary Jo and her family returned home to Shoreview, MN. She has since started her fifth year of posting a daily image on STILL and has recently partnered with Target Corp. and West Elm to create exclusive, home collections featuring her still life photography. “I thought I’d spend a year building a quiet portfolio in a small corner of the Internet, but the blog unexpectedly began to take off. I found an unplanned success and knew I had to run with the exposure.”
Today, STILL seems like an intuitive label for Mary Jo’s collection work—the definition of the word being rooted to the spot. It inherently describes Mary Jo’s daily search for natural objects near her home and her minimalistic, still life designs, which manifest as a diverse area of ecosystems that celebrate the beauty of being present in nature.
I ask Mary Jo if there is a deeper message that she hopes to convey with her work—perhaps an effort to evoke a conversation around sustainability or authenticity. She explains that the notion of living authentically first resonated with her when she was able to understand the term as “consciously living one’s values.” She believes that we live in a world where we are constantly overstimulated, and the hyperattentiveness that comes with the process behind STILL has allowed her to slow down and better appreciate nature. Mary Jo hopes this self-discovery simply translates to her followers.
Even with the harsh daylight and temperature constraints that come with a Northern winter, Mary Jo still holds true to her original vision of one collection, one image, once a day. “I’m not a purist, but I’ve always been fascinated by a life well lived.” Her cheeks are still rosy from today’s cool air, and I can’t help but wonder if she had been foraging for today’s piece prior to meeting with me for our morning coffee.
Mary Jo Hoffman resides in Shoreview, MN with her husband, Steve, and her two children, Eva and Joseph. Her work can be found on stillblog.net, and her exclusive Target Corp. and West Elm collections are now available for purchase online.
Steve Hoffman is a home-chef and writer who has won three national food journalism awards, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Food Writing 2014 and 2015.