In this day and age, people traveling Highway 395 in Inyo County, California are hesitant to stop and pick up hitchhikers. These do not feel to be safe and secure times to pick up strangers while traveling on our desert roads.
Just south of Olancha, California there is a perennial hitchhiker that people slow to see and often stop to observe first hand. It is a giant metal sculpture that can be seen on the low horizon from a few miles away. It appears mysterious and startling to the passerby. Disturbing even more so is this looming figure in the context of the many other sculptures artist Jael Hoffmann has included in her desert sculpture garden. This is much more than a roadside stop to break the monotony of miles of arid land, backed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
For Hoffmann the sculpture, visible to all those traveling Highway 395 south of Olancha, has several meanings. The unknown hitchhiker is carrying a suitcase, which represents all the baggage we carry through life's journey. There is also a feeling of personal freedom, and female empowerment attached to the figure, with her wrench necklace, and thumb extended, waiting for what life will be offering next, ready for the unexpected.
In an interview at her desert home, Jael speaks freely and at length about her developing philosophy of life. This philosophy underlies most of her sculptures in one way or another. Immediately you realize that the prevailing sense of humor in her work provides the entre to the deeper life meanings the metal sculptures carry just below the surface.
In her work, Jael often refers to an internal schism. At the source of this schism she sees a fear of mental annihilation. Yearlong suppression of one's actual self, can lead to the simultaneous belief in, and rejection of the projected self. This tension finds expression in many a harmful behavior.
I ask about the several monsters in her work. There are several figures that she jokingly, almost affectionately calls 'monsters'. "Sharp toothed monsters easily signify anger/rejection, which is indicative of the above mentioned schism."
Through much of her research, and inner-directed awareness, Jael has realized that "accepting what is, appreciating self unconditionally, and forgiving those who fostered the false, painful belief in self, brought about relief, as it motivated a deeper, multi-faceted understanding of reality."
A major point in her philosophical insights is that, "whatever you create is contingent on who you are, meaning how you live your life, outside of art making directly informs the manifestation of ideas. Therefore, living is as much a part of art, as the work process thereof."
One of the sculptures on Jael's website is called "Escape from the Clutches of Repetition." It has four jagged, toothed jaws rising vertically on an angle with a twisting pipe topped by a globe. Another sculpture out in her garden is called "Topography of Belief." It is a wonderful line of figures that takes the famous "See no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil" much further metaphysically. From left to right, the first head has a pressure gauge in the middle, circled by eight shiny metallic gears; the next face is made of rolled short pieces of motor springs; followed by a face, made up of a "No Trespassing" sign, which is punctured by bullet holes, and the final one has petals and feels open and welcoming. Each figure then is symbolic of an element of human belief, which can be a tendency, or a combination of them.
About the garden itself, Jael has written: "Sculpture gardens facilitate access to art. The rugged environments my sculptures chose to inhabit are not coincidental, but supportive of their unadorned messages."
Jael uses her personal practice on an almost daily basis. She scans her body from within, looking for tension spots. "You rationalize against the better wisdom of your body," she argues. "I used to sleep on my belly like a mummy, turning away from the outside world." She realized this indicated in her body the schism she has been depicting in her work. Today she sleeps on her back, arms wide open.
In the artist's statement on her website she writes of these issues. "I have long been aware of the discrepancy between how I was affected by things, and who I was. This gap seemed unbridgeable, but along with emotional toll of such a schism there existed a deeply rooted desire to evolve this predicament. Most of my work reflects the dichotomy of suffering: the acceptance of certain lies, while rejecting the pain of their existence." She goes on to say she discovered it was, in fact, bridgeable by connecting with and attending to a "primal knowledge about what feels right."
Jael believes that compassionate support can be useful in the unfolding of our lives. One such example can be found in the relationship between Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, which she thought was beautifully exemplified in the documentary, 'Who's the Monster --You or I?' With the help of Tinguely, de Saint Phalle was able to gain self-respect, and embrace her womanhood, which can be witnessed by her "Nanas" -- giant, voluptuous, colorful women. "I have always been curious about transitions, about what spurs change for the better," Jael adds.
Hoffmann was born in Israel, and raised in Berlin, Germany, where she spent 5 years studying at the 'Freie Universitaet Berlin', and received her Masters degree in the Science of Religion, Politics and Psychology. There, among other things, she learned to question the written word, and discover her love for the world of ideas. During summer break in California she met her future husband, Michael Lish, in Los Angeles. They are no longer married. Jael lives today with her daughter, Noa, in Olancha, California. Noa has been mostly homeschooled, and is poised to graduate high school in this "severely" rural area. She has a self-described "yarn addiction" (does astounding lace work, Amigurumi, and other yarn art), and wants to learn how to work in glass, after graduation.
Hoffmann's pursuit of metal work began when she met Brother John, in Big Sur, California, an old "hippy" artist, who gave her insights into the trade of jewelry making.
She also began working with papier-mache, and foam, but realized she needed something more durable. Soon miniature sculptures were forming, instead of jewelry, and when Jael realized that size/presence mattered, when a relevant message was to be expressed, she learned how to weld with up to human-sized sculptures as a result (and some larger).
Many of her sculptures show the monster within that needs to be transformed, for well-being's sake. "I haven't tamed all my monsters yet," Hoffmann admits with a smile, "but, then again, the process is delightful."
A word she came across, in one of her association based research, is the Greek word 'Hexis', which means 'disposition due to habit', brought into form through a figure, which has one hand made of a pitch fork, and the other made of a flower, "It can go either way".
About what inspires Jael's work, she says, "When my sensitivities are appropriately honed, an image will pop up. There is no telling where the initial impulse will come from, it can range form a proverb, a word, insights, etc. to quantum physics, and beyond". "When I get stuck on a technical problem, I let it rest, trusting that the answer will present itself when I'm ready to receive."
Jael now has a plasma cutter, which will make it easier to work detail into her art. Through experimentation she learned how to attach glass to metal with the stained glass method. Her newer metal sculptures incorporate glass, which accentuates different aspects of her pieces.
Last spring she had a solo show titled "Internal Scapes" in Ridgecrest, California's Maturango Museum, at the Sylvia Winslow gallery, which was enthusiastically met by residents of the High Desert and visitors alike. The artist's parents were on hand, having flown in from Israel. A musical group of family members, called the Wrightwood Ensemble, played during the opening reception.
"Some pieces incorporate humor and some sarcasm," said Andrea Pelch, Maturango Museum Art Gallery Coordinator. "Some pieces are highly colored, others are monotone rust. The rust works very well out here in the desert. All pieces usually invoke a 'gut reaction'. Jael's extremely clever titles and descriptions make the sculptures even more meaningful." Sales were brisk during the run of the show.
Hoffmann has noted on her website, "The simultaneous impact of a symbol on different levels of awareness, has always secured my attention in visual art, performance art, literature, or life in general. A via regia of sorts, as Freud would have it, the symbol allows entry to those subdued if not forgotten forces that pull our strings."
Jael Hoffman's Sculpture Garden is open to all any time. With any luck you might meet the artist herself and engage her in discussion of her work. The lucky will then walk away with one of her "monsters" posed in metal to help overcome inner schism.
Much of Hoffmann's work is pictured on her personal website.
All images by Christopher Langley.