Mary Jo Hoffman: From Functions to Form - The Search for Richness (and Stillness) in Life
The creator of STILL discusses her journey from aerospace engineering to artist, and how she learned the difference between a rich career and a rich life.
Mary Jo Hoffman, visual artist, nature photographer
- Mary Jo had a natural gift for math and science but didn’t realize it until a teacher in high school suggested she pursue engineering.
- She almost had to turn down graduate school at Stanford but she discovered persistence pays off, and she finally got her employer to pay her way.
- When her employer, Honeywell, was acquired by Allied Signal, it changed everything. Mary Jo opted for a rich life rather than a rich career and she decided to focus on her family.
- She started STILL while living with her family in France as a simple way to exercise her creative side. Six months later, Martha Stewart called.
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Mary Jo Hoffman, creator of STILL at stillblog.net, a blog that posts one image daily of gathered natural objects. It’s been described as a place to stop, a place to look at one thing at a time, a place to be still. I think this is definitely something we need in this day and age of tweets and snaps and tictoks.
Mary Jo used to be an aerospace engineer at Honeywell before becoming a full-time creative and spends her time here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but apparently also in France. I want to know so much more.
Hi. Hello. Welcome to the show Mary Jo. It’s so great to have you on the podcast.
MARY JO HOFFMAN: Hello. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a thrill.
IVAN: So, you graduated from Stanford with a Master of Science in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. Can you tell me more about where you grew up, and why you enrolled in such a prestigious program?
MARY JO: I sure can. It’s a typical path and an unusual path at the same time. I actually grew up in the Twin Cities. I actually grew up in the same suburb, Shoreview in which I live now. I moved back to the place I grew up in when I was in my forties. But I went to undergraduate school at the University of Wisconsin Madison. It’s an interesting story, because I was always good at math and science, but it was back in the day when nobody knew each other’s GPA. Do you remember that era?
MARY JO: You had no idea what the GPA of your friends were let alone your own GPA. And so I grew up knowing that I was good at math and science but not having any idea of how good at math and science I was. All I knew is that it was fun for me, it felt like solving puzzles, I got my homework done quickly, usually on the bus on the way home, and so I could go out and play when I was done.
And so, I never thought much of it. My parents didn’t think much of it. And then one day in high school, a physics teacher, and yeah, I was taking calculus and I was taking physics because honestly, they were more easy for me than taking history or polisci, which was what my friends were taking.
IVAN: I feel you. [laughing].
MARY JO: It’s interesting. One day at physics my high school had two physics teachers, and one of them that didn’t even have me in his class pulled me aside in the hall and he said, Where are you going to school? I said, Madison. He said, What’re you going to study? I said, I have no idea. He said, Why don’t you think about engineering? It's a college. It’s easier to get into. When you enter college, and you don’t like it you can drop out, and if you do like it it’s easier to enter as a freshman than trying to transfer into it as a sophomore or junior.
So I took his advice, and I went to Madison, I entered the College of Engineering. And it turns out that, in a school the size of Madison with 40,000 students, each of my physics classes, my chemistry classes, my math classes, they had 500 students in them. And you quickly found out just exactly how good at math and science you are [laughing] by the curve. The bell curve of 500 students.
Suddenly you got real-time feedback on what your chops were, and it turns out I was quite good at math and science, and so I stayed in engineering. I considered all the different kinds, and aerospace appealed to me the most. I was never a kid that grew up wanting to be an astronaut, or fascinated with rockets or satellites or anything like that. It was really an aptitude thing. I enjoyed the science, and I enjoyed doing the science that was the requirement for that field. Does that make sense?
IVAN: It does make sense. How did it end up that you went from Madison over to the west coast and did the master’s at Stanford?
MARY JO: I was born in 1964, so it’s the last year of the baby boomers. I’m considered that tail or the cusp of the baby boomers. But if you remember that was the Reagan era, and there was a lot of defense spending, and so aerospace companies were hiring. So when I left college in 1987, I probably had eight job offers, and I probably had nine interviews. Everyone was hiring.
So, the age old story, it’s embarrassing to say, but I came back to Minnesota because of a boyfriend. And Honeywell was one of those offers and I actually took it.
Now people don’t associate Honeywell with aerospace, but one-third of Honeywell’s business was aerospace related, and it was Avionics. So all of the electronics that go in almost all of our aircraft, most of the commercial aircraft, most of the US Air Force aircraft, most of the satellites, they are predominantly Honeywell. The electronics of the guidance, navigation and control, it’s called Avionics, and that’s made by Honeywell. So, Honeywell was one of those job offers, and I came to Honeywell right out of undergraduate, and I was hired in the Research Center. After working for a year with just an undergraduate in research, I realized I wanted more chops. It was mostly Ph.D.’s and stuff I was working with.
So I applied to graduate school and got into Stanford. I applied to only two schools, the University of Washington in Seattle, because that’s where Boeing is. And then I applied to, because I thought it’d be cool to live in California. It was that naïve, that simple. It was back in the era where parents didn’t coach you. Nobody was pushing you. Everything was self-driven. I just thought California sounded cool. In the Research facility at Honeywell a lot of my coworkers were Ph.D’s and several of them had come through that Stanford program. I had that whispered in my ear, but I really applied based on location.
There aren’t that many aerospace programs in the country, there’s probably only about a dozen or so. Usually located where there’s an aerospace industry. There is an aerospace industry in the Bay Area, Nassau Aims is located there. So, Seattle, Southern California, Texas, and then Honeywell in Minneapolis, and some on the east coast. Anyway, I applied to Stanford. Again I was really good at math in an explicable way. I took that GRE and I got 98% percentile in math, and I think I tested 70th percentile in English, and I’m a native English speaker. [laughing] I had a spikey talent, this one talent for applied mathematics.
IVAN: It actually sounds a lot like what happened to me. I don’t know if you know that I worked at Honeywell as well.
MARY JO: I did know that. So, yeah, tell me your story.
IVAN: Well, this is all about you, of course. I just wanted to point out that you may have known some of the people that I worked with. My first boss was Earl Benzer.
MARY JO: Oh, yes.
IVAN: I was at Honeywell Technology Center in Plymouth. Is that the location you were in, or were you in the one in Camden?
MARY JO: Nope, I was in the research center, the one on the Mississippi River, off of St. Anthony Parkway.
IVAN: Oh, right, with the chimney that has the bricks.
MARY JO: No, that’s the Honeywell Division. The facility that makes the navigation systems. Those ring laser gyros. No, the research center, we had our own building. We were considered ivory tower. It was more like a university research center than it was a corporate research center.
IVAN: Wow. So, essentially the same thing that happened to you, I assume you went back to Honeywell after you were done with your master’s at Stanford?
MARY JO: Yeah, actually, I should tell the story of getting the masters at Stanford.
IVAN: Yes, please do.
MARY JO: I think people would be curious to hear it. I put myself through undergraduate college and came out with student loans. In addition to doing my engineering degree, I worked probably average 20 hours a week, at least, but sometimes 30. I put myself through college, then got out, went to work, I had student loans so I had to take a well paying job. And then I applied to graduate school and I already had at that time $30,000 of student loans, which today would probably be about $100,000 of student loans, and got accepted to Stanford. This is all very interesting.
I called Stanford and I said, “do you give financial aid for a masters program?” I remember it as a chuckle, it’s hard to believe that they did actually chuckle, but I remember them saying, Oh, no, no, no. If you want to come to Stanford, you find your funding. What I learned later was for master’s degrees they don’t give funding, but if you tell them you’re going in as a Ph.D. student then they’ll find funding for you.
MARY JO: I didn’t know that game, so I told them I was only coming for a Masters. So I went to Honeywell and said, I got accepted to Stanford, I can’t afford Stanford, can you guys help me out? And Honeywell said, No. The policy is we pay for graduate school if you work while you’re doing it. And for most Honeywellers that means you’re going to the University of Minnesota. So, you have to work part time and go to school part-time and we’ll help pay for your college tuition. I said, Well, I want to do this program. I’m not going to work, as you know, pre-Zoom, you know what I mean? Couldn’t work from California. It was the very beginning of email back then, and so anyway they said no. Then I deferred a year, I deferred my acceptance a year, and then I asked again, and they said, No.
Then I applied for a scholarship and I won a little scholarship. It was this crazy scholarship out of New York City. It was a little bit of money, and I went back to Honeywell, the third time and I said, I’m going to have to turn down this scholarship unless you guys can help me go to Stanford. Then my boss essentially took me aside and said, Okay, we’re going to give you money, but don’t you tell anyone. [laughing] He said, The policy is if you go to Minnesota and work part-time you get reimbursement. But he said, We are going to give you money. Don’t tell anyone. We expect you to come back. With, you know a handshake agreement and he said, If anyone ever does find out we’re going to say it was because you were a female. Because I was the only female in the group.
IVAN: Oh, wow.
MARY JO: So, then they didn’t have to offer it to everyone. But it took three times. They said flat, “no” the first two times. That’s the message I want your folks to hear.
IVAN: Gotta keep trying.
MARY JO: You keep trying. They were very polite about those no’s, but they were just saying, We can’t, we can’t. We can’t afford to pay for everyone who wants to go to grad school, right. So, eventually they found a way and I went out and they paid for that graduate program. And I did come back, and I worked for them for 15 years after that.
IVAN: What were your major challenges in transitioning back to working after your out doing your masters and not being on campus at Honeywell?
MARY JO: Well, you know, there wasn’t much. I put myself through undergraduate so when I went to Stanford it was the first time, I was a full-time student. It was the first time I ever lived in a dorm actually. So, that’s interesting, because when I went to Madison, they weren’t giving housing to out of state students because there was a housing crunch. So I had my first, sort of dorm, full-time student experience when I went to Stanford.
And then I came back, and I went back into the same research group I’d been with and just resumed what I’d been doing. So there wasn’t a hard transition coming back. I made my friendships and my relationships before I left, and I just stepped right back into them.
IVAN: So you were at Honeywell for about 15 years as a woman in engineering during, I would guess, the eighties and nineties, right? So, not exactly corporate culture that’s conducive to female engineers.
MARY JO: It was in the nineties. So late eighties to the early two thousands. You would think I have a lot to say about it [laughing] and I don’t. Honestly. I should think about it, I really should, because I should have a lot to say about that. I was very often the only woman in the room, but I wasn’t that aware of it. I was a real tomboy growing up. I’m still a tomboy. I’m 56 years old, and I’m still a tomboy. I was just one of the team. It didn’t occur to me that I was a woman. I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently.
There was one incident in that 15 years where I was pulled aside and my boss gave me a fairly sizable mid-financial cycle, gave me a fairly sizable raise, it was like 13% or something, I don’t remember. I said, What’s this? Because it wasn’t the time for annual raises, and he said, HR just looked at equal pay, and based on your performance ratings you’ve been underpaid compared to your peers.
IVAN: Wow. By 13 percent?
MARY JO: I don’t remember, it was sizable at the time and I was like, Great, free money. But then it did occur to me like, Okay, how long have I been underpaid compared to my peers, because you’re not offering backpay? But, anyway, Honeywell was great to me. I quickly got promoted. I moved up the engineering ranks very fast and then very quickly in management. By the time I left in 15 years I was director of the lab that I was hired into. I had a hundred employees in three countries. Honeywell gave me a lot of opportunity, and they didn’t hold me back in any way. So, the fact that maybe for five years I’d been underpaid compared to my peers, it’s a data point. It’s interesting, but I made up for that with quite a lot of promotions and opportunity.
IVAN: What was the inflection point that led you to say, I am done with engineering and now I’m going to take photographs and be a creative and sell those photographs on the internet?
MARY JO: That’s a good question. As you can imagine it’s very multifaceted. I had been promoted quite quickly, and part of it was people that get Ph.D.'s and do research, they don’t want to do management. You’ll remember a big part of the manager’s job was to find work.
IVAN: Yeah, it was like, How do I get that DARPA funding?
MARY JO: Oh yeah, to go to DARPA, to go to clients and explain to them the talents of your group and either team with them to bid for government contracts, or have them hire you as a subcontractor. So, really it was almost like a very, very highly specific technical marketing job. Anyway, most people that get Ph.D.’s they want to do technical work, so they’re very happy to not have to go do sales to sell themselves to clients. So the fact that I was willing to do that on their behalf, it was very interesting, because I became a manager of the group. My first management position, where I had 15 engineers in my group, I was younger than all of them by 15 years. I was probably 30 years old, and they were all in their mid-forties. But they were not in any way resentful that they were reporting to a woman, nor that I was so young. Because I was willing to do a job that none of them wanted to do, which is go talk to clients.
What happened is, I was willing to do it, I turned out to be really good at it, and I got promoted, promoted, promoted. After 15 years though I was traveling so much. I remember turning to my favorite boss that I’d ever had in my years at Honeywell, John Wayrock, and I said, at that time I was now 35 years old and I said, I wish I had this job at 55, because of all this travel, and I want to start a family. And I can’t be traveling this much. I said, I think at 55 I would love to be traveling this much. So anyway, there was a convergence of things that happened after 15 years. I wanted to start a family. Honeywell had just been tried to be acquired by General Electric, which had failed due to antitrust; and then two years later it was then successfully acquired by Allied Signal.
IVAN: Allied Signal. I remember that. That was around the time I left as well, actually.
MARY JO: By then I was now director of a lab, and those years of acquisition were really stressful on the employees. And in a stressful work environment it brings out the worst of people’s behaviors and so the work environment wasn’t as fun.
It had been kind of a golden era in the nineties. There was lots of government funding, we all liked each other. Our particular group was the best in what we did in the country, and we knew it, and everybody knew it. So, there was this little golden era of research. Then there was an attempted takeover of Honeywell by GE, and then when we were finally acquired by Allied Signal, the air was just sort of let out of the balloon. Allied Signal was a conglomerate in a nonspecific, really wide net industrial conglomerate. Nothing very sexy. [laughing] And people that worked in Honeywell were really proud of the work they did.
And it turned out that Allied Signal was one of these companies that was built on the model the only thing that matters is earnings per share and every quarter the earnings per share have to go up and that’s all that matters.
When that message got delivered to our 500 engineers in the research center, it was just the end of an era. We cared about the work; we didn’t care about earnings per share. [laughing] It was the work that mattered. People worked incredible amounts of overtime without pay. It was that kind of environment. Because they loved the work. So, Allied Signal came along, the environment changed, the work was no longer fun, and I was also needing to start a family.
So, quite honestly, we had our first daughter by then, and I was having trouble having another child, and actually started working with a fertility doctor who suggested I quit work. She said, We can’t help you, because there was nothing physically wrong. She said, My last and only suggestion is you try quitting work.
And the environment had changed, and I said to my husband, If we don’t try, I’ll always regret it. So, those things converged. But the interesting thing, one more thing. I think it matters because this does have to do with being a female. I had been fast-tracked and tapped to go into executive management. So, when I announced I was leaving I got called into a room with a bunch of executives, a bunch of presidents and vice presidents. It was the most ridiculous meeting. They’re all sitting in a semi-circle and I’m in the middle of the semi-circle.
IVAN: How awful.
MARY JO: It was ridiculous. And it was meant to retain me, that was the point of the meeting. They called me into the room, and they said, Why are you leaving? We had plans for you. By then it was very much about fertility. And I sat there, and I thought to myself, Here’s a bunch of men [laughing], I knew them all, because I had interacted with them. They were all divorced. They were all not on good terms with their own children. They were all on second or third marriages. There were none of them role models. I sat and I said to myself, Do I tell them the truth? Do I tell them it’s fertility? What do I say? Don’t burn your bridges, you’ve got to come back. This is all going through my head. In case you need to come back, don’t burn any bridges. I’m just sitting there looking at , and I don’t even remember what I said. I think I told them we were trying to have a child, and that this is what the doctor recommended.
But the interesting thing is, by the time I left I was 38 years old, maybe, and I was on several national boards for aerospace. I was flying to Washington, D.C. regularly to consult about how the government should fund aerospace research. My Stanford aerospace graduate peers were now directors and vice presidents at Boeing, at NASA. I was well connected in the community. We’re going to get to France, but less to remember by the time I left there were only two airplane builders, Airbus and Boeing. And Airbus is located in Toulouse, France. And everybody knew that my husband and I had a love affair with France. I was perfectly steeped in this industry. Do you know what I mean? I’ve always felt like it was a lack of imagination on their part to let me walk out the door. Do you know what I mean?
MARY JO: They should’ve said, Go do what you need to do but when you want to come back call us. Or when you want to come back in any manner, even part-time, call us. But they didn’t say that. They just said, Okay.
IVAN: See you later.
MARY JO: See you later. I really feel honestly that it was just a lack of imagination. It didn’t occur to them that they could’ve done that, they could’ve offered that, and I think I would’ve come back in a part-time manner.
IVAN: And they would’ve had the experience and everything that you had previously, even better.
MARY JO: Cool professional network. One of the other things that contributed to me wanting to leave was it’s a slow moving industry. Thirty-year cycles of products. It takes seven years to do flight testing on a new piece of equipment.
IVAN: Long time.
MARY JO: So it was one of those things that drove me crazy because it was a slow industry. At the same time, I’ve been out of Honeywell now for about that amount of time now, about 15 years, and my colleagues are still there. I still have a professional network in the aerospace industry, because it’s a slow moving industry.
IVAN: And people stick around.
MARY JO: People stick around, and products stick around, for 30 years.
IVAN: Stability and reliability.
MARY JO: Yeah. So, the fact that they let me walk out the door with all of that and not just say come back we’ll make it work, I just felt like shame on them.
IVAN: And the blog started after you left, and how is it related to France? You said that there was a love affair with France, but you left Honeywell, you worked on your family, and then this blog happened.
MARY JO: Yes, another thing happened. By then Allied had bought Honeywell, and Allied Signal’s corporate headquarters were in Morristown, NJ. And I remember flying out to there, I had to fly out there all the time, and an executive HR person called me aside and said, By the way, sort of enjoy this position now, because this is the last position you’ll have where you get to call the shots. After this you’re married to the company.
MARY JO: They literally said that.
IVAN: That’s awful.
MARY JO: I came home from that trip and I said, I’m not married to Honeywell, I’m married to you, Steve, you know, I’m married to my husband. I like my job, I’m a hard worker, but I am not married to Honeywell, I’m married to my family. It was the wrong thing to say to me at that moment. So, I leave Honeywell, and they let me leave, and I leave for good, I don’t harbor any intention of going back. Then just as the fertility doctor predicted, I got pregnant right away, and we had our son [laughter]. Yes, she was right. So now I’m a stay at home mom with two kids, but used to working full-time.
My husband had been a stay at home Dad with our third daughter, and we like to say we high fived and switched roles, which is what we did, but of course that transition took over five years. He had only been working part-time, and then he ramped up to full-time. It was a step back financially for me to quit working obviously, and we didn’t get parity for a long time after that. But, I remember that story about, You’re going to be married to Honeywell, I remember thinking, No, I want a life. I don’t want a career. At the end of the day I want to have had a rich life, not necessarily just a rich career.
Again, I went into math and science because I was good at it, not because it was necessarily a burning passion. What we’re both passionate about was creativity. He’s a writer, and I would say I’m a visual artist, and my current primary medium is photography. I was more into visual arts, he was into writing, and those were always hobbies. But we always dreamed of early retirement where we could do that more full-time. The thing that we carry then that you don’t have to stop doing someday, because you can be a writer when you’re 80. It’s hard to be a software engineer when you’re 80.
So, when I quit work and became a full-time mom, and those first years of children are just overwhelming, and then after three or four years, it was when my son went into preschool, I remember picking my head up and saying, Okay, what do I want to do now? I always wanted to do visual art, and what I happened to be best at was photography.
My husband and I had actually taken the kids to Southern France. My son is six, and we put the kids in school in southern France and we went and lived there for six months.
IVAN: How do you just pick up and do that? I don’t get that. You just do it? How can you do that? I just went to France.
MARY JO: Yeah, I am skipping out on a lot of important details, because I’m worried about time. My husband's work is seasonal, he does taxes, and it’s very, very intense from January ‘til May, and then it’s not intense. And he makes 90% of his income between January and May and 10% the rest of the year filing extensions for people and that kind of thing. So, he had seasonal work, and I wasn’t working, I was still a full-time mom at that point. There’s also one other big thing I skipped over with the early college years. I put myself through college, and I didn’t have foresight, it just stumbled into all this, but I really liked college. I had fun. I got through college, at that time I was borrowing $6,000 a year, and that paid tuition and living at Madison those years. And suddenly I got out, and I think my first job at Honeywell was like $35,000 a year, so I was used to living on $6,000, I was being paid $35,000 and I just kept living on $6,000.
IVAN: Good for you. That’s awesome.
MARY JO: It wasn’t that I was super smart about compound interest or anything, [laughing] you know what I mean? Now, today on the web there’s all sorts of groups that do financial independent stuff and the ways to severely below your means, so you can do a really early retirement. I had put myself through college living on next to nothing, and I continued to live like that for a good 10 years after I started making a professional income. So, I saved a lot of money young, and as you learn compound interest is wonderful. So by the time we were middle age, we actually had some financial security. Not financial independence, but enough financial security that we could go to France for six months. And that’s what led to that. I was a foreign exchange student in high school. My husband had lived in Paris for a year when he was a college junior. We had always been travelers. We always dreamed about those kinds of adventures. We both had ambitions to be creative. But we were doing the very traditional, suburban thing, raising kids and working full-time. But we always had those dreams. Then by the time we got into our forties, we put our kids in French Emergence School, and then I wanted them to go to school in France, and go from just being conversational in French to being actually fluent in French. So that’s what prompted the trips to France.
So, you’re asking about what started the photography. While we were in southern France, the kids were in school, and I had time for the first time really to really commit myself to creative work. And I just thought up a project, I’m going to take one photo a day of something in my environment. There was inspiration for that. I was following other creative bloggers. They looked like they were having a blast sharing their work online, and I just felt like, I want to be part of this community. These guys are having fun. And I’m here in France for six months, what can I do? What am I good at?
Well, I’m good at photography. I walk the dog every day. We brought the dog to France. So, I’ll just find something on my daily walk, I’ll photograph it and share it, and that’s what STILL came from. So, it’s really just simply still life nature photography, but I did it in a very, very modern aesthetic, very graphic, and it hit some kind of zeitgeist. And within six months of starting, Martha Stewart called and said, Can we feature you in the magazine? And it just snowballed from there.
IVAN: Wow, Martha Stewart calling. You must’ve been beside yourself when that happened?
MARY JO: I was flabbergasted. I really, truly thought five people would look at my pictures. One of them would be my mom and one would be my husband. I was doing it for myself. It was a creative outlet. I wanted to participate in the creative community online and I felt like, you know, you can kind of just go in and follow, but I wanted to be a participant. You know what I mean? I’m going to share my work and I’ll comment on other peoples work. I wanted a place at the table, is what I like to say. So, I thought it was a personal creative exercise. It hit a nerve, and then it snowballed, and then it got its own momentum. And here I am eight years later, and I’m still doing the same thing. I’ve been making one image a day for eight years.
IVAN: One image a day for eight years. Wow. That’s amazing dedication.
MARY JO: It’s kind of like the crazy cat lady.
IVAN: What does your routine look like? You must have a routine that manages when you take the picture, because you have to do it every day.
MARY JO: Yeah, every day. I do when I know that I’m going to be traveling. For example I was just out of town for two days. If I can I’ll bring my laptop and a camera. If I can’t I’ll make extra images the days before I travel and preload them. But I am making the equivalent of a new image every day. I’ve been doing it for eight years and it’s very, very infrequent that I actually preload. Most images are made that day. Like, today’s image was made today, and I will post it tonight. I haven’t posted it yet. It will get posted before I go to bed, and it’ll be tomorrow's post. So, what’s it look like? I find something in my environment usually while I’m walking, sometimes it’s when I’m driving. I’ve been known to pull over and roadsides are full of really interesting stuff. [laughing]
Anywhere I find interesting things, and I bring them home and I usually photograph it on my kitchen floor because I have skylights in my kitchen and it’s all natural lighting, and it’s on a white background. So, I just use posterboard or tagboard. Sometime during the day I find something to photograph. I bring it home, at some point in the day I’ll photograph it which takes another 15 to 20 minutes. And then usually around dinnertime I’ll edit the photos on Photoshop. I’ll pick the one I’m going to post, and that’s another 10 to 15 minutes. Then right before bed I post it to the blog so that it refreshes overnight, and I type a little something for each thing and that takes another 15 minutes. It’s like 15 to 20 minutes, three to four times a day. And that’s the beauty of it, is that it fits in the cracks. I don’t have to block out an hour and a half every day to do STILL blog.
IVAN: Do you ever worry about repeating yourself or doing something that’s been done before? Do you not remember? Do you not care? How do you feel about your past work influencing your current work?
MARY JO: I don’t care. Every spring the fiddlehead ferns come up, and every spring I photograph them. I remember writing this spring when they came up, I said, I’m going to keep photographing fiddlehead ferns until I feel like I’ve captured the essence of fiddlehead ferns. I’ve done cattails every year. I’ve done fiddlehead ferns every year. There’s the obvious things. You do lilacs in spring. You do burdock in summer and thistles in summer or whatever. Those are obvious things. Of course the fall leaves in fall. The more fun challenge of doing it now this many years is to take a whole fall and not do any leaves. The leaves are so obvious. They’re so loud. They’re so in your face.
IVAN: They’re everywhere. [laughing]
MARY JO: You see red, orange and yellow, that’s what your eye goes to. You can’t not look, right? So the interesting challenge is capturing fall without doing the fall leaves. What else is going on in fall? And then that gets fun again. That can carry me for a while. So, I find nature absolutely endlessly fascinating. I don’t see ever running out of topics. I don’t think I will ever, maybe capture the essence of a fiddlehead fern unfurling. It’s infinitely inspiring. It sounds super cliché but it’s the truth.
IVAN: How has the pandemic affected your work and your walks and the things that you’re doing?
MARY JO: The interesting thing about the pandemic, I actually feel kind of guilty about it is that people are suffering, and people are suffering physically, emotionally and financially. And for me the pandemic has been the opposite. It’s even more time for walks. It doesn’t change my financial picture. I don’t have to worry about that. So, in some ways it’s slowing down and everyone’s slowing down has made even more time for me to do this thing I love.
Because even though I’m what you call self-employed now, when everybody’s buzzing, everybody’s busy, you get invitations, you’re social. I very, very much like to be part of a community. As a matter of fact, when I quit working at Honeywell, the biggest thing I missed in the end was being part of a team. Being part of a group of smart people trying to solve a problem. I really loved that. I loved that team, creative problem solving.
So, in creative work, being an artist is very solitary, it’s extremely solitary work. Anyway, the pandemic has made it easier. There’s more time, there’s less demands. There’s no social demands on my time. Really in some ways it hasn’t changed STILL. Doing the STILL blog creative is kind of immune to that.
IVAN: You’ve worked with such large brands as well, right? You’ve worked with Target and the Scottish National Opera in addition to Martha Stewart.
MARY JO: Yep, Martha Stewart, I partnered with West Elm, I partnered with Target. Target put my stuff on bedding. West Elm made these cool transparent pictures. It really led from one thing to another. It just got this momentum of its own that I still can’t explain. It’s funny, I’ve been doing it eight years, and really if you look at it it’s like this, what’s the deal? It’s just some dried flowers on a white background. I have 17,000 followers on Instagram, so people know my work and they recognize it. I call it the STILL police, people out there saying, I saw this, and it’s not credited to you. Is it your work? [laughing] They’re out there making sure I get copyright credit where it’s due, and they’re usually right. It is my work, and I didn’t get credited, but often every now and then it’s not hard to repeat what I’m doing. Every now and then I’m like, No, that’s not mine.
IVAN: So clearly you have had relationships with and have sold your photography to large companies, but you also license your photography to anyone who really wants to purchase it from the internet. What are the differences between dealing with a large company and individuals? Is there anything that you’ve learned about dealing with big companies that perhaps you’d wished you had known earlier on when you first started the blog? I guess you never really anticipated working with large companies and you have all this Honeywell experience. But there must be something that strikes you about that.
MARY JO: I sell my images a lot. Probably every day I get requests for images now. I do sell to individuals, although I don’t make that well known because it takes a lot of emails back and forth just to sell one image, and I don’t charge that much, so it’s not a very good use of my time. I really like working with professionals.
My favorite people to work with are other designers, because they know exactly what they want and they’re very decisive. Whereas if I’m selling an image or a grouping of images to Sarah in Omaha, there’s a lot of, Do you think this, or do you think that, or do you have anything similar to this? It’s just not a good use of my time, whereas the designer will come and say, We want these four images for this project. Can you give us a price? I just love it. It’s efficient, and I always actually love to see what they do with it, because they do very interesting things.
The big corporations, so West Elm and Target, in particular, they were fun to work with. I loved working with Target. West Elm happened to come to me the same year, so I was working with them at the same time. I had two bookend experiences. Target had me do all the design work even down to working with the printers themselves. West Elm kind of just more or less asked me for the images, and then they did all of the product design, and just told me what they were doing. Even though my name was on the product they were going to brand it as STILL by Mary Jo Hoffman, but they were really telling me what they were going to do. Whereas Target actually let me do the design. It was two bookend experiences. I actually don’t mind either. I don’t mind just selling the images and letting people do what they want with them if they’re professionals. But I did have a lot of fun working with Target and I really like that company.
IVAN: What is exciting you right now? What are you working on that you can’t wait to show to the world?
MARY JO: That’s a good question. In eight years you kind of go up and down. You can’t stay in an amplified or amped up creative mode all the time. So, I think I’m in kind of a regrouping.
IVAN: It ebbs and flows right?
MARY JO: Yeah, I’m in an ebb I would say right now. But I have been approached by a book agent to do a book, and I’ve been thinking about that for a couple years. It makes a lot of sense.
IVAN: A coffee table book with all your images. Boy, that would be beautiful I’m sure.
MARY JO: Yeah, it makes a ton of sense. It’s an obvious fit. The only reason I say I’m in an ebb and the only reason I’m not sort of like She’s ready to go. The only reason I’m not ready to go is that I’ve been doing this for eight years. I now have 3,000 to 5,000 images and to start to sort it is an overwhelming task. I have to get over the hump somehow. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I can’t even explain why I can’t get started. My friends, my husband, the agent, they’re all like, “just pick your hundred favorite images,” and I’m like, “there’s 3,000.” The irony is there aren't a hundred favorites.
IVAN: You could maybe crowdsource some of that. You could maybe publish the images and put up a poll of some sort and ask people who are following you to pick their favorites?
MARY JO: That’s very interesting. I absolutely could. But I’ve been selling images for a year, so I know what people like. People like rainbows. If I do a rainbow with fall leaves, people love it. If I take dried flowers and arrange them, people like gradience, they like rainbows. There’s certain things people like but that’s not necessarily what I like. I could probably pick the hundred most popular based on Instagram and Pinterest feedback, but that wouldn’t be true to me.
IVAN: That’s right.
MARY JO: And that’s what I’m wrestling with is, I’m a minimalist. The ones that are the most true to me are the ones that have been most clear, and they tend to be desaturated, very minimal, very uncluttered, lots of white space. That’s a very personal thing that I don’t think would sell a bunch of books. So, I’m wrestling with is it my personal expression? You can see where I’m struggling. [laughing]
IVAN: This is the creative process that you’re struggling through. This is it, right?
MARY JO: Right. So, if anybody out there wants to just come and make those decisions for me. I want West Elm right now. I want somebody to come in and then just say, We’re going to look at your portfolio, and we’ll make the decisions, and you approve or don’t approve. That’s probably what I’m waiting for.
IVAN: I wish you luck with that, [laughing] maybe that’ll happen. It’s been so great to talk with you and to spend my time with you this day. Is there any final thought you have for our listeners, from someone who has experienced so much in engineering and someone who has been so creative?
MARY JO: I appreciate this talk; it’s been super fun. It’s funny because I started the hour by saying that I was born in ’64, which is the end of the baby boomers, and yet in some way my careers turned out very typical of today’s millennials and Gen Xer’s. I traded, sort of traditional career security and career success for a life, a more balanced life, a more fulfilling life. There was a financial cost with that for sure, and part of the reason I could do that is I was lucky enough to have saved money young. So, I had the financial security to make those choices later in life. That would be one takeaway I think for that.
My husband and I about 10 years ago, one final thought I guess is that you’ve heard the express What if? About 10 years ago my husband was taking a continuing education class, and the teacher at the class said, Don’t ask yourself what if. Ask yourself what would it take. It was a funny little switch that flipped for both of us, and suddenly instead of, Wouldn’t it be nice to go to France someday became, What would it take to go to France and put the kids in school? That’s a really subtle but important shift and that’s made all the difference for us.
IVAN: That’s a wonderful nugget of wisdom. Like, what would it take? It’s just so subtle, but so empowering.
MARY JO: Right. It’s incredibly effective. Suddenly you’re being very practical and it’s amazing how quickly pieces do fall into place once you change that mindset from really from passive to active. This has been a blast. I hope people find some takeaways and find it inspiring.
IVAN: I’m sure they will. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. It’s been wonderful and a great pleasure talking to you.
MARY JO: Alright. Thanks so much guys.
IVAN: Mary Jo Hoffman is creator of STILL, a blog that posts one image daily of gathered natural objects. You can find her work on stillblog.net, and you should also follow her on Instagram @maryjohoffman. She is on Pinterest as well.
You’ve been listening to The TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is email@example.com. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thanks for listening.