Photos by Hillary Ehlen
In artist Mitchel Hoffart’s basement studio in Moorhead, he shuffles around unfinished pieces of art, tossing them on the floor to be stepped on when trying to find what he is looking for. Three of the walls in the L-shaped home studio contain eye-level works-in-progress, neatly in a row and thumbtacked to the paint-smudged sheetrock. This process and the studio itself are representative of the work Hoffart creates: organized yet messy. Distracted yet attentive. Light-hearted yet political. These juxtapositions are not to the hindrance of his work, but rather to its benefit.
The artist’s portfolio of work includes multi-medium pieces, ranging from abstractions to the naturally-inspired to figurative mixed media. His understanding and admiration for color theory are one of the threads that tie all his work together. That, and his predisposition to use just more than one medium at a time.
Hoffart’s pieces reflect his rural North Dakota upbringing while also providing commentary on political and environmental issues. The abstract nature of his work involves a process of layering and editing. For example, an array of oil pastel markings covered by paint, and then revealed again when scraped away by fingernails. Through this method, he reveals new messages and meanings in the work as he covers and uncovers marks, previously hidden to even him.
While Hoffart is currently self-represented, he is thankful to Mark Weiler at Ecce Gallery for his efforts in marketing his work over the years. He added, “Without [Weiler’s] efforts, I’d have a basement full of art and no way to pay for paint.” In the past Hoffart found success with his figurative works, with pieces held in numerous notable collections. These places include two in West Acres‘ permanent collection, two in North Dakota State University‘s permanent collection, three in Catalyst Medical Center, one in Gate City Bank, four installed in the new Dillard apartments and two in North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum’s private collection. After establishing his figurative style, Hoffart is branching out of the familiar and lending his talents to abstract works.
“It’s been very challenging because I don’t know anything about abstract art,” Hoffart said, outlining that he is still learning what makes a piece of abstract art good. Throughout his portfolio, you can see an infatuation with geometry and the structure of straight lines. In teaching himself this genre, Hoffart is learning how to take his linear style and shift it into the flourishing and sweeping brushstrokes that are often associated with abstract work.
He credits part of his love for geometry and straight lines to his computer science background. Contrary to what Hoffart’s quickly-selling portfolio of work implies, he is not a full-time professional artist, but rather an Information Systems Technologist at North Dakota State University. He’s been in this position for 25 years and views art as a hobby he came across when looking for a way to spend his time at home.
“There are certain principles in art, design principles of form, shape, movement, color, contrast, chroma…all these different things go into making a good piece of art and anyone can learn to do it. You just have to put your mind to do it,” Hoffart said. To him, realism is much easier to accomplish than abstract art. “Anyone can learn it, anyone can learn art,” he said. Throughout his life, he has been drawing. But it wasn’t until 1996, when he got married, that he decided to learn how to seriously draw. Once he comprehended how to technically draw well, he spun off into developing his own style from there and has been evolving his style ever since.
Looking around his workspace, one can see Hoffart’s abstract progress honing in. In his previous work, Hoffart’s process was more linear than it is now. He would design a whole piece out with Photoshop and mentally lay out each step he’d need to take to accomplish the final product. His work was deliberate, or as Hoffart would say “tight.” Now, he strives to work loosely, saying, “I still haven’t made the complete shift, because I’ll work very tight and then I’ll stop and back away and decide to not go there anymore.” He added that he is tired of creating artwork that is so calculated and tedious. It’s time to loosen up.
Now, Hoffart’s process involves multiple works-in-progress at a time. Often, the timeline for a piece is indefinite, with Hoffart working on each one for up to a year. Since his process is so reliant on the craft of adding, covering, uncovering and adding again, the endpoint is up to his interpretation.
Amidst this seemingly-chaotic process, Hoffart meticulously documents his work. He gives each piece a serial number and tags the works with that hashtag on Instagram so that he and others can track the progression. He credits this meticulousness to his computer science background, adding that he strives to be as professional as possible with his work as an artist.
He pulls up older pieces on his computer—carefully organized in folders upon folders—and he zooms into the works. It’s a treasure hunt as he reveals the easter eggs hidden within each piece. Every mark is intentional, yet no mark is intentional. Any attempt to get Hoffart to explain his process leaves him rambling and never landing on a finite answer of how or why he does what he does —it’s innate.
Fingering through a portfolio of his work, he jokingly describes one particularly in-depth work as a mixed-media tour-de-force, having involved virtually every art method he practices in one piece. Detailed painting, photo emulsion transfer, stencils and collage…he included it all. Perhaps this impressive combination of methods was the final straw that made him step back and create loose, abstract works.
Away from the computer and his portfolio of finished work, Hoffart returned to the works hanging on his walls. He stared at a piece that is most likely the closest one to being deemed “finished” and mused, “I love it now, I just want to know…I always ask myself, ‘Can I be better? Is the mark I’m going to make going to detract?’ If something I’m going to do is going to detract…” he trailed off as he explored it. Coming back to it, he said, “I don’t consider any of these shapes sacred. I can paint over anything.”
Regardless of whether these shapes are figurative or abstract or anything in-between, Hoffart has one mission. “What I want is for the viewer to be stopped. I want them to walk by a painting and stop and look at it because it is compelling. Not because there’s some sort of overriding message to it, but that it moves them in some way where they need to stop and take a second look at it.”
Before wrapping up the discussion, he paused to note that he should have offered us old t-shirts to wear so that we could have helped throw some paint on one of his canvases. We would have been honored.