“I want people to realize the goodness in the world as well the really dark shit. Good and bad, then use that to become better people and better participants in life.”
To see, really see, the work of Ashley Renee Hoffman is to view the world through her eyes, with her intention and with a fire for better in your belly. Her collages bleed with curiosity, frustration, and tongue-in-cheek humor; her photography sending silent screams rippling through the dark pine forests of West Virginia, past the home farms so lovingly tended to with laughter and promise and into the warmth of dimly lit house parties scattered throughout the valleys. It’s tender rage, looking destruction in the face and shouting for everyone around you to react.
To meet Ashley is to experience the bright, conscious and open soul that creates this connection between nature, social commentary and beauty. She’s dope. No really, just a really chill, friendly person who makes thought-provoking art, works to make the world a better place and is fucking nice as hell. I sat down with her to talk about her work, origins in art and the Frederick arts scene.
How did your interest in photography and collage begin?
ARH: My mom gave me a camera when I was twelve. It was her camera that my dad had given her as a gift while they were dating, real cute. I started taking photos, they were kind of bad, but great and I loved it so I started taking photos of my friends and stuff all throughout high school. I’ve literally always taken photos, it’s just kind of in my adult life, I intentionally take photos of different things. And then with collage I started taking art classes with Ms. Reeves and, I don’t know if she still teaches this, but when I was there she made us keep an artist book that was inspired by Dan Eldon. You could draw or write, basically anything and I tried to emulate him and tried to be him. His work was very journalistic with collage so I emulated him and wanted to be him. Then I just explored collage on my own in collage and found my own voice. Then, I got into the digital world that gives you so many opportunities.
Other than Eldon, what other artists have inspired you?
ARH: Nan Goldin for photography. She basically was the woman of the 80’s in the art world to capture and identify snapshot aesthetic – taking pictures that could pass as shots from a disposable camera, it’s a casual way to photo and was kind of in response to the technological world where cameras are accessible and everyone takes photographs we have automatic point and shoot cameras. Robert Rauschenberg, for collage he’s fucking awesome. There’s always one piece of his at the Hirshhorn Museum and it’s always so good! Another is Claire Morgan does installation work with taxidermy and trash, I saw her one of the last times I was in Nashville – she’s so amazing, parts of her work made me cry. She takes these dead animals she finds in the city – usually they’ve been poisoned or died of disease or something – and she taxidermies them into situations in which there’s trash blocking their view in certain ways and there are different perspectives you can see them from and it’s a commentary on how human interference interacts and is detrimental to the natural world. It was her first exhibit in America and I just happened to be there. I went on that trip not expecting much but ended up having the best time. There was a Buddhist exhibition and Irving Penn’s work was there as well. Nashville is amazing.
Where else have you traveled that you’ve enjoyed?
ARH: Fayetteville is my all time favorite ever. Maybe one day it’ll wear out its welcome but not yet. I love Ocean City too. I just love it, it’s gross.
Is it like a nostalgic kind of love?
ARH: Yeah, I just like the ocean and feel really comfortable there. I really loved Seattle too, I wish that part of the world wasn’t so far away.
What is your artistic process like?
ARH: I take photos all year but mainly in the Spring, Summer and Fall and then do collage when the weather is cold. I find no enjoyment in doing collage when the weather is nice, I think why am I in here inhaling mildew and dust when I could be inhaling fresh air. So like for collage I’ll get new material and flip through it and pull things out that seem cool and I generally work from the subconscious on that – things will inspire me and will spark an idea or make me analyze something that is going on in my life. Particular pieces come together and sometimes I’m looking for something particular. When it comes together it becomes an idea and forms fully. Sometimes things go in directions where I think, “Yeah, I saw that coming” or sometimes it morphs into something surprising. Photographically, I try to take my camera everywhere I can.
I kind of gave up on being an adult for a little while and my plan this summer was to go on week long trips to small farms this summer and take photos for this series I’m working on where I’d work for a little bit but it kind of got interrupted by getting this new job. It’s become a sort of short-term retirement plan for when I’m tired of the 9 to 5 and I feel I’ve done all I can do there.
ARH: Yeah, I’m continuing what I can do here and there. I went and saw a friend of mine, who I’m continuing their farm progress in Fayetteville, WV. Which is like a long weekend trip. It’s heaven on earth and I highly recommend visiting. Lately, that’s what I’ve been doing with photography, taking it to farms and when I go out to West Virginia. I used to have it on me all the time, but when I was living in Shepherdstown [Ashley graduated from Shepherd University in 2011] I was closer to a lot more people, they were beyond friends – they were family to me. I loved them, I hated them, they’ve seen the best and worst of me so I got really comfortable photographing them. Around here I have a few of those people but not that I see regularly so I’ve been focusing more on capturing landscapes and places. I moved to a different subject but it’s the same idea, reoccurring places that feel comfortable to me – like the farm series. A lot of the time I end up taking more cute animal photos than anything else, which I don’t know really what I’ll be lending to the world other than cute animals.
Cute animals are what the world needs sometimes. Why do you think you are drawn to taking pictures of the familiar or comforting?
ARH: Photographing people and places help me look back and remember a time and a feeling. Sometimes it’s good but sometimes it makes me sad, and I feel like I’ve lost something. For the most part, I’ve recently been photographing things more so to understand them. Trying to wrap my head around why we as a society are destroying everything and treat the natural world with such little regard. So I’ve been taking photos of man-made destruction and manmade objects that are, in my mind, so unnecessary and really do a lot of harm to the world. I juxtapose that with places that I really love or people in places or situations that I really feel connected to and think are worth valuing. Trying to embrace both of these things without being overwhelmed by one or the other.
What helps you to stay focused and positive when capturing bleak subject matter?
ARH: A lot of my art comes from dealing with those types of things head on. I got keen about the environment and the environmentalism movement. The eastern panhandle is isolated from a lot of the issues in West Virginia and the culture in the entire state because the area has the DC-metro influence and more money. Jefferson County is the richest county in WV and they don’t make as much as the lowest-earning county in Maryland. I have friends from all over the state – southern WV, northern panhandle, central WV – and they all have very varying experiences with that environment and a lot of them were because of the land exploitation and human exploitation that goes on in those areas. Moneymakers capitalize on the sweat and effort that they’ve put in and taken away the lands they love. It was really awful to experience that through their eyes – in ways it was like witnessing some sort of abuse situation – you’re not being directly abused or the abuser – but by witnessing, you’re part of it. You can’t help but feel all of that when you’re as close as I was to that group of friends that were my dysfunctional family. So once I knew all this, I got really depressed and starting doubting the point of anything. I thought, “Why are we [humans] even living? We’re parasites, we’re all awful.” But the interactions you have with different people make it all worthwhile. One parasite isn’t as bad as a whole group of them; so you pick out the parasites you like. You keep them close to your heart and decide to be the do-gooder parasites that rally everyone. You do your best to persuade everyone to be better, but you can’t change everyone and that’s how you get through.
How does the process of a collage come together for you?
ARH: I love the paper quality of old print, dot matrix or just weird shit that you see when you scan a piece of physical material and blow it up and see all the intricacies of the printing itself which is really nice. So I find things, scan them, size them and then put them together. Sometimes I’ll completely construct a piece physically and there are no elements that I manipulate digitally. The finished quality of digitizing the material is just better so I don’t usually manually construct. I have terrible craft issues; glue is just a disaster for me. If I tried to make [a collage] a beautiful finished product, it would look like shit. So, I get all the pieces where they should be and scan it so it comes out this nice well-done piece.
How would you like to see the Frederick scene evolve?
ARH: I would like it to be more supportive, friendly and mindful. I feel like artists often feel like they have to compete with one another, but the fact of the matter is what one person has, another doesn’t. There is power in numbers and power in having a diverse array of talents and perspectives. We can each fill a void and help each other. My worst nightmare is doing an art show by myself, I hate that, it’s the worst. But sometimes it’s like who has a body of work to get this up and running, who will commit? I want people to be making work that is saying something. Making things that are meaningful and have a message. I don’t think there’s room for purely aesthetic art anymore; we’re beyond that. Art has gone there, it’s been done, and now there is so much that needs to be said and a lot of shit we need to talk about. Art has always been a way to do that. It’s the taboo breaker that brings up conversations and unites people from drastically different places. I’d like to see artists supporting each other more, and working… a lot! And showing, reaching out…not being shy or accusatory either!
What do you mean accusatory?
ARH: In ways of competition, if you feel like someone is not including you, I’m sure it’s not on purpose, and if you feel that way reach out to that person. More often than not they just weren’t aware of your wants. If you put your desire out there, someone’s going to react.
*Read Ashley’s Comprehensive Guide to Getting Involved in Your Creative Community – published in the 3rd issue of SUBVERSIVE zine.*
What is the biggest message you would like to send through your art?
ARH: I want people to realize the goodness in the world as well the really dark shit. Good and bad, then use that to become better people and better participants in life. I think that’s what I try to do.
What would constitute, in your opinion, a better participant in life?
ARH: Just always questioning if you’re doing the right thing morally and ethically and being compassionate. Compassion is number one. People are different and you can’t write someone off before you even know who you are.
Where to see Ashley’s work:
Click the image below to listen to a playlist of tracks hand-selected by Ashley.Playlist cover photo by Emily Gude.