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Camille Hoffman; Art, Cultural Identity and Polly Pockets

There is work and then there is play, or so we thought. Camille Hoffman—artist, arts educator and community organizer—is not afraid to do both at the same time.

As an artist, she does not let the intensity of her works’ messages stop her from having fun with her creations. Hoffman takes everyday materials—anything from the popular Maruchan ramen packaging to medical records—and creatively gives new meaning to each element by transforming the material on the canvas. Playtime takes on an entirely new meaning in Hoffman’s studio. By repurposing consumer products, her choice of substances carries a heavy symbolic weight. Many pieces echo a dark critique of the American values rooted in colonialism and capitalism.

Her creations, though serious in their message, are the result of the excited energy that radiates from dedication and palpable passion. From February to May of this year, Hoffman has been a Van Lier Fellow at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). Her passion has been put, quite literally, on display.

On a recent visit to MAD, I caught a glimpse of Camille Hoffman in the studio and the sight was inspiring. After meeting her and seeing, firsthand, the texture and intricacy of her pieces, I needed to find out more. Hoffman kindly agreed to an interview and what resulted was a flourishing conversation of art, creative upbringings, Polly Pocket dolls, and the undeniable need for good friends.

The Brightest I’ve Ever Seen Them, 2016, oil, acrylic, nature calendars, plastic, carving on wood panel.

When did you first get started in art? Were you always interested in it growing up?

I grew up in a house where art and thrift was embraced as a lifestyle and a mode of survival. Coming from a long line of stylishly frugal artists, our old Chicago bungalow was filled to the brim with family paintings and carefully curated chachkas. Everything we owned was made, traded, or purchased on a shoestring budget with a unique story to tell. As a kid, I didn’t always appreciate this lifestyle, especially when it came to comparing it to the “normal non-artist” houses and toys belonging to my friends.

 At the height of the 90’s Polly Pocket craze, this 11-year old materialist sentiment was especially fervent. Compact, but luxurious, Polly had every pretty plastic amenity her teeny tiny heart could desire—a pool, a veranda, a king-sized bed—all perfect and pocket-sized. Her mini crib in pastel pink represented the sleek and sparkly world that I so desperately wanted to own, but would never actually fit into. Of course I begged my mom to buy a Polly for me (the deluxe one just like Shannon’s), but mom wasn’t having it. After weeks of putting up with all my annoying antics, she proposed that I just make my own damn Polly Pocket. She reached deep into our cupboard for some plastic cups, and together we crafted a mini mansion shell in SOLO red. We took tiny glass beads and scotch tape from her jewelry drawer, and then made the most lit chandelier! My tiny king-sized bed was crafted with recycled fabric swatches and lined with the finest Maxi mattress pad (only the best in comfort for my Polly)!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, my homemade Polly Pocket housed my primary lessons in art-making as anti-capitalist agency. Through frugality and invention, my mom opened up a new and expansive world to me by empowering me to create my own.

Describe your art process from conception to creation.

Everything I make comes from a never ending (and almost fanatic) process of observing, playing and collecting. Whether it be walking down the street or engaging in conversation with my neighbors, I’m constantly picking things up or taking mental notes about color combinations, textures, and even smells. In my studio I have a ridiculous reserve of materials I’ve collected from the street and dollar stores over the years, such as plastic tablecloths, calendars, to food packages. Having these objects scattered about helps me to further conceptualize my ideas and my compositions when I’m working in the studio. I also reference a lot of printed historical and anthropological texts while making lots of sketches and writing lots of notes.

Eventually my experiences, materials and research coalesce into a clearer idea for a composition. Once I’m actually making the work, I’m engaging in a process of pure play with materials and layering. So much of my work involves intense research, and then a complete trust and letting go of my analytical and rational brain in order to create.

Sunset for Fred Church, 2016, acrylic, oil, plastic tablecloths, nature calendars, Top Ramen packaging, tiki party favors, plastic bag, and photos on board.

What stories are you trying to articulate with your mixed media work? What narratives do your materials express?

I’m currently working on a series of invented landscapes that respond to American Romantic landscape painting, such the Hudson River School, and the underlying messages surrounding Manifest Destiny in these works. As an American citizen and painter who’s been formally trained within the Western canon, I think a lot about the ways in which these beautiful and epic landscapes have warped my own ideas around nature, culture and the American dream, as well as my own understanding and acceptance of my Filipino and Ashkenazi ancestry.

In my work I am investigating how painting has historically projected an image of an American value system that continues to violently omit the cultural and economic contributions of Native Americans and immigrants. Considering the nuanced ways in which American colonialism affects my present day existence within a globalized and capitalistic society, I am riffing off of American landscape painting tropes while purposefully merging disposable materials that have been collected and accumulated in my everyday life. Some of these materials include papier mâché medical records, paycheck stubs and credit card offers, which I use to build dense and highly textured surfaces, along with dollar store nature calendars and plastic bags and tablecloths. I then blend these materials in with traditional oil paint in order to create invented territories that implicate my own body, history and presence in a critical and layered way.

Describe your typical day while working at the Museum of Arts And Design (MAD).

My typical day involved making my work in a studio on the 6th floor of the museum while inviting people into my space from all walks of life. Over the past 4 months, I’ve had the honor of welcoming literally hundreds of people from every age, background, country and community into my space, and watched them respond to my work. From preschoolers to scholars, first-time museum visitors to museum directors, rabbis to Buddhist monks, all of these invaluable exchanges have helped me to better understand the importance and responsibility of my role as an artist in conversation with the world.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist? What do you struggle with most?

Although it can be financially and emotionally trying at times, I appreciate having the agency to craft my life around the thing that I love doing more than anything in the world, which is making my art. Even when I find myself in the midst of banal chores or exhausting side-gigs, I know that it’s all for me and for my practice. Coming from a family with a lot of love but not a lot of money, I’ve learned to never take anything or any experience for granted.

Where is your artistic inspiration derived from?

So much of my inspiration comes from the ways in which I was exposed to art as a kid growing up in a creative and transcultural household. I come from a long line of artists in my family, including my grandmother, Shoshannah, who has been one of the most influential creative people in my life. She was a painter who became active in the 1930’s and 40’s depicting the human figure in urban settings around Chicago where she grew up.

Coming from a mixed-race Filipino Jewish family and raised in a Latino community on the Northwest side of Chicago, I am also constantly tapping into material experiences that stem from my own history of cultural contradiction and ancestral disconnect. One such example includes the recurring tiki party palm tree decoration that I plant in many of my works. On one hand it’s a fun tropical trope that has adorned on the patios of many parties I’ve attended and enjoyed, but at the same time, it’s cartoon gesture can be seen as a violent caricature of an ancestral land and culture seized, destroyed and minimized to the point of exotification and entertainment. I’m interested in how these layers of personal meaning and history can be extracted from objects like these through the repositioning of their site and context.

What is the best advice you could give to emerging artists and creatives?

Practice self-care and find friends who uplift you. Surviving as an artist, paying the rent, making and defending your art in this world is hard enough, let alone trying to please people who don’t fully accept you, waste your time or don’t reciprocate the support.

Develop a routine of self-care, separate from your art practice and from others that allows you to pause in your day to day and ground your mind. Whatever the practice is, see it as the regular replenishing of love and care that only you can give to yourself.

In addition to self-care, and despite the strong solitary studio rat persona that many artists project, there exists in all of us an inherent need to feel supported, loved, and appreciated at some level. It is therefore crucial to cultivate genuine connections with friends who believe in you, who will show up for you when you need them, and who’s honest opinions you can trust at critical moments. It’s important to unabashedly put yourself out there too, in order to identify these individuals. I’ve found that it has been at the most vulnerable and open moments of my life when the right friends have revealed themselves.


By Tatiana Gallardo | Paintings by Camille HoffmanPortraits by Adrián Bará

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