Mary Jo Hoffman at the February Meeting of the MCBA Visual Journal Collective

February 19, 2014

See the blog for details.

Black-knotLeft: fungus growing on dead plant matter—image ©2014 Mary Jo Hoffman, artist of Still. Click on the image to view an enlargement, and go to the blog link in this post to see more of her stunning images.


Monday, February 17, 2014 photographer and artist Mary Jo Hoffman spoke at the MCBA Visual Journal Collective about her blog Still, her creative journey, making time for creativity in her life, and building a community of artists through the internet.

Mary Jo’s successful blog won a design award within months of launching. It has been recognized by several prominent bloggers each with a large fan base. She’s even been the subject of a Martha Stewart Magazine profile. All in the two years since she began her blog.

Mary Jo became interested in photography at college, but trained to be an engineer. It was her career for 15 years. She divides her life into phases. That first phase of school and work, followed by 12 years raising her two children, followed now by a focus on her own artwork—in which her children and family still play a crucial participatory role; her son has become a great help as a "finder"; her daughter is now taking her own photographs.

Mary Jo explained her creative journey by saying she experienced two a-ha moments after 2000. The first was going to see the exhibit of journals from the Journal Project 2000 at MCBA. Looking at the cases of journals made by the 50 participating Minnesota artists documenting their lives during the course of 2000 Mary Jo was inspired and encouraged. “I saw really tremendous illustrators and artists at work,” she said, “but I also so how casual and authentic they could be, sticking receipts and other ephemera in their journals. ‘I can stick down receipts; I can do that,’ I said to myself.”

She started keeping a visual journal full of sketches, experiments, and of course receipts. (She works in Coptic stitch journals made for her by a local book artist. She favors that format because she likes the way the journals open completely flat.) 

Next she started curating art shows, meeting more artists, reading more books like “The Artists Way,” by Julia Cameron.

Her second a-ha moment came when she found herself surrounded by and hanging out with artists. “I realized,” she said, “That I wasn’t making my own art.”

In the meantime she had also been working on her photography skills taking photographs of houses for her husband (a writer and real estate agent). “It’s really difficult to take attractive photos of interiors and make a house shine,” she said. She kept perfecting her skills.

That’s an important point in Mary Jo’s journey. She kept working at her craft, perfecting it, learning. When she decided to start a blog focusing on her found-nature photography she had laid the groundwork by developing her photographic skills.

When Mary Jo started her blog she was conscious of expressing her aesthetic and hired a designer to code her wishes into being. She was so pleased with the results that she submitted the designer’s work for an award—and he won. That action led to being noticed by a design blog and immediately bumped up her readership in the design community. Next she was asked to provide photos of her living space by a design blog. “It was a lot of work, without any expectation of success,” she said, but she put the work in and was gratified to see how out of the 60 photos she submitted the editors at Design*Sponge crafted a story using 15 of them.

And then her blog received a substantial bump when that feature led to recognition by, and a print feature in, Martha Stewart Magazine.

Since that time Lisa Congdon and Cup of Jo have featured or mentioned Mary Jo's work on their blogs.

But in all this it is important to remember that Mary Jo kept producing her work and publishing her blog. It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the photographs on Still, that the attention Mary Jo has received is justified by the charm and beauty of the work.

“I started the blog with the idea that I would have to do something manageable within the confines of my day. Something that I could do 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there. I walk my dog several times a day in a nature reserve and I have always enjoyed being in nature, so it was natural to start making photos of the items I found.”

She collects items on her walks, sets them on white tag board, arranges them as she goes through her day and passes through the kitchen where she sets her arrangements up. Later she shoots and publishes one photo each day. She has just started her third year of daily photographs.

Some photos contain single objects, other photos capture collections.

After two years of doing this she admits she has “run through all the obvious stuff.” As this third year starts she has found herself looking more and more closely at all the objects she finds on her walks. "February is the most difficult month," she laughed to a group of snowbound Minnesotans who made it out after a snowy morning to hear her talk, "everything is buried."  

She also has started to plan ways in which she can build on what she is doing and take the next creative step in the future.

She was inspired by Austin Kleon’s quotation: Do good work, then put it where people can see it.

“I had all this work in my journals, on my shelves, but no one was seeing it.” The blog allowed her to reach out into the world.

Having created a large body of work and put it where people can see it, with her mind set to future projects, she is also looking at “earning her place at the table,” by establishing herself as an expert through teaching and writing.

I encourage you to go to Mary Jo’s blog now and take some time to look through the wonderful images she’s posted there. It may be difficult to find the different layers, but there are layers for comments and layers for brief explanations of what she was trying to do in each photo. Take a moment to investigate.

You'll also find her on Instagram and Pinterest. (But not on Facebook.)

Be inspired. 

Additional recommendations from Mary Jo Hoffman:

  1. Keep the same user name on all platforms so that people can find you.
  2. Make use of keyword indexing and hashtagging whenever available—to drive people to you through searches.
  3. Take time to “like” the work of others (“It doesn’t cost you anything, just click a button”) and join in dialog with other artists when you can.
  4. Read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” for inspiration even in small doses.
  5. If you want your work to be licensed put the money and time into creating quality mock ups of the products you think your work would be suitable for. Then take the time and money to take great photos of those products and publish them on your blog to give designers and artists clear ideas on how they might use your artwork on products they might create if they license the work.
  6. Be willing to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

UPDATE: 2.21.14—
Artist Christine Mitzuk (who teaches gesture drawing and illustration at The Atelier) attended the meeting on Monday and posted on her blog about the insights and inspiration she received. Go check it out.

  1. Reply

    I love how you emphasize the artist working incessantly at her craft. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Karen
    • February 19, 2014

    Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.
    One such quote.

  2. Reply

    Great write-up Roz. Thanks again for cluing me in to this event. I’m glad I went!

  3. Reply

    Thanks Karen, I’ve heard that one too, but there’s one about chance. I actually just googled it.

    Chance favors only the prepared mind—Louis Pasteur.

    He meant that inspiration and insight doesn’t just come, but if you do the work, the preparation, you’ll be in a position to capture that chance.

    I like that.

  4. Reply

    I’m glad you could come Christine. I thought it was fun to hear Mary Jo’s talk (I never knew she’d worked as an engineer for 15 years!). Great to see you even for a short bit.

  5. Reply


    The quote you reference is “Prepare to be lucky”. The quote is attributed to E.B. White. Twyla Tharp has a nice take on this in her seminal book “The Creativity Habit.”

    Mary Jo

  6. Reply

    Wow Roz,

    What a wonderful write-up. Can I grab it and use it as my Artist Statement? Just kidding. But we all know how hard it is to write these things about oneself. I love your summary of my path, and how you emphasized the points that you resonated with–like the effectiveness of a manageable daily practice, no matter how small.

    A huge thank you for inviting me to talk to the group. It was the first time I tried to articulate “my creative journey”. The time spent pulling the pieces together in my head was well spent. We never take enough time to reflect on such things. And I found it was a productive exercise to connect all the little dots, and look for themes. I can highly recommend it! Which, of course, leads me to ask when the last time you shared your creative journey with the group?!? I, for one, would love to hear your story!

    Thanks again Roz. You were, truly, one of my earliest inspirations!

    Mary Jo

  7. Reply

    Mary Jo, nope, The quotation I was thinking of was Louis Pasteur, I wrote to Karen about it below.

    But now I have another one.

    Seems a lot of productive people have this sense that it’s important to do the groundwork and be ready for the rest. Chuck Close has a wonderful statement about doing the work and not waiting for inspiration. I can’t remember it right away, but it’s in the same vein. Something about nothing every coming to him EXCEPT when he was working, which is basically what Pasteur was talking about too.

    I have believed that all my life.

  8. Reply

    You’re funny. It’s easy to do a good write up when the speaker comes prepared!

    I’m glad we all got to benefit from you taking some time to reflect and pull your pieces together.

    I make a practice of reflection, well actually I make reflection part of my practice, because it’s how I keep myself on course. I tend to write about it on the blog a couple times a year, but mostly at the end of the year when I write about goals (because many people make goals at that time of the year—though I am a vocal proponent of making goals at any time of the year and just getting on with it).

    I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to the group about my creative journey because it would be BORING to the folks there who already read my blog (though we found out last Monday not a lot of those present do) and REALLY BORING to my past students (many of whom were there.

    It’s spread out all over in interviews and books. My friend Ricë Freeman-Zachery has pulled some of it out of me when interviewing me for her books on Creativity. (She’s a hoot to talk with.) And some of it is in Danny Gregory’s two compilation books on artists journaling. If I had to sum it up in a sentence I’d say: My life’s journey all comes down to being a lippy third culture kid.

    Everything else comes out of that.

    I’m always happy to know I’ve provided even a little inspiration to someone. It is, as you’ll remember, one of my fondest wishes, to get everyone to journal. The trick is, I cajole them into a broad sense of what a journal is…

    It improves my numbers. Thank you again for taking the time to give such a fun talk to the Collective. People are still mulling over what you shared, and will be for some time to come.

    And I’m looking forward to seeing where you expand and grow to.

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