Artists Mary and Karl Hofmann in front of the kiln in their Placitas studio. See fully loaded kiln below.
Photo credit: Oli Robbins
Gifts of the Kiln God: The pottery of Mary and Karl Hofmann
If you live in Placitas, or a nearby area, there’s a good chance that you frequently interact with the pottery of Karl and Mary Hofmann. Their work seems ubiquitous; I find myself drinking from one of their mugs or gazing at one of their plates—on display in the center of my dining room table—almost daily. Their work is both functional and decorative, but that’s not what makes it such a delight to use. It’s also quietly confident, as if it was never forcibly made, but rather exists as an organic entity in its own right.
Karl is interested in the space inside a pot, rather than its external silhouette. He explains, “I tend to look down and inside the object and work it until the empty space takes on a clear volume. The clay wall becomes a skin that defines the empty space within.” His shapes are felt, rather than thought, and they’re the result of a sensitivity to the material and process that Karl has honed over the past half century as a ceramicist and sculptor.
Over the past fifty years, Karl and Mary have worked together, both as husband and wife and prolific collaborators. They met on a blind date while attending graduate school at Michigan State University. Karl was obtaining a degree in history, and Mary, in painting. Mary recalls that the date turned out to be not so “blind,” as they “discovered they both had a passion for art.” After knowing each other for only six months, the pair married.
While in the army, Karl had the good fortune to be stationed in Japan, where he visited the studio of renowned Japanese potter Hamada as well as the pottery village of Onda. The Japanese aesthetic and artistic philosophy proved foundational for Karl’s later career as a potter. After serving in the army, Karl pursued two of his passions—history and ceramics-sculpture—receiving a Masters degree in each and meeting Mary along the way. Karl went on to teach humanities and art at universities around the country, while Mary worked in the university libraries. They found themselves in Placitas in 1976, when the town was well on its way to becoming a thriving artistic community.
Soon after, Mary began working at the UNM library, and Karl found himself teaching art at Sandia Prep, where he would remain for the next 19 years, all the while working feverishly on his craft. Mary’s extensive art education enabled her quickly to acquire pottery skills and, in an attempt to keep up the pottery production while Karl was teaching, she shifted her focus and embraced pottery full time. She makes most of the hand-built (as opposed to thrown) pieces, manages their business, completes much of the “slave labor” involved in the very long and intensive pottery process, and draws on her painting background to decorate fired pieces.
Mary explains that while she is “goal oriented,” feeling great satisfaction when she keeps up with her stock and achieves a goal of completing so many butter dishes or snack trays, Karl is “process oriented,” reveling in the material itself and the moment when a soft lump of clay evolves into a shape. He enjoys exploring the space inside of a pot and “likes to think of the empty space as being under pressure, pushing against a thin skin of clay that is slowly expanding.” In order to achieve the feeling Karl is after, he needs the skin of his pieces to be paper thin. “I push it to the point where it will almost break, and there’s a real tension in there.”
Karl’s training in sculpture informs his pottery philosophy. Mary explains, “Karl thinks of things as volumes.” He doesn’t like concave shapes, finding them too restricting and “silhouetted.” To Karl, his pots are not static outlines, but breathing objects. The subtleties that Karl is after are not present in each of his pots. “That’s why I do pots in series of 12 or 24,” says Karl. “They’re all nice from the start but they don’t have that quality until maybe I get to pot eight or nine, and then it’s pure feeling, I no longer think about how to do it, I just push it to that point.”
Though Karl believes that it’s “unnecessary” to glaze, he admits that he and Mary like to decorate and that he appreciates the “tension that arises between surface decoration the volumes you’re dealing with.” To ensure that their decoration doesn’t compete with the pot’s three dimensionality, Mary explains that they “use brushwork that follows the ins and outs of the surface of the pot. In that way, the two elements are related.” Says Karl, “The kiln firing is the critical element for fusing pots and decoration into a unified whole. Sometimes because of the location of the pot and the temperature of the kiln, pieces are created of unusual and unexpected beauty. We call these ‘gifts of the kiln god.’”
The Placitas landscape has undoubtedly affected Karl and Mary’s aesthetic. Says Mary, “Living in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, and enjoying the blue skies, the red earth, and enduring mesas has influenced the decoration of Hofmann pottery.” The Hofmanns will be showing their work in the hall of Placitas Elementary School during the Placitas Holiday Sale on November 17th and 18th. One of the original organizers of the Placitas Holiday Sale—now in its thirty-first year—Mary continues to take pleasure in sharing her and Karl’s work with the Placitas community. She says, “Pottery is hard work, but my reward is getting to know about the lives of our customers and hearing their appreciation of our work.”
Karl and Mary were recently honored with the 2012 Albuquerque Art Business Association Local Treasures Award, which recognizes artists that are devoted both to giving back to the community and encouraging young talent to continue the legacy of New Mexico’s diverse culture. Their work can be viewed at Weems Galleries, Gallery One, Whiting Coffee, and the Mountain Arts Gallery in Ruidoso.
See their work and say hello at the Placitas Fine Arts & Crafts Holiday Sale in Placitas on November 17 and 18, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.