April 28, 2022

Professor Mark Hoffmann wants to visit the Shovel Museum.

“It sounds boring, sure, but honestly it’d be fascinating to just spend an hour learning about shovels and at some point that might pop up in a book.”

The chance of that seems to be getting higher every day. Not because of a midlife obsession with shovels, but because Hoffman keeps putting out more and more books. He recently celebrated the release of two new books he illustrated, Iamasaurus and A Penny’s Worth.

            The first of the two books, Iamasaurus was released in February. It follows a diverse cast of young students romping around a museum’s dinosaur exhibit and learning the many things they have in common with the creatures on display. The book was written by Anne Ylvisaker, who is the author of more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction for children across a wide range of ages.

            “My son wants to be a paleontologist. I jumped at the chance to do a dinosaur book.”

The second, A Penny’s Worth, was released by Page Street Books just over the bridge in Salem, MA. The story, written by Kimberly Wilson, follows a penny named Penny as she goes on a journey to find her worth in a world where a single cent is often dismissed.

The two now number among the ten different childrens’ books Hoffmann has illustrated. His full body of work also includes fine art, book covers, and editorial cartoons, but the last few years have found children’s books dominating his time. Not that he’s complaining; he’s got two more on the way next year, including a sequel to A Penny’s Worth entitled A Dollar Bill’s Grand Dream.

Hoffmann has now been working in this particular medium long enough that he’s developed a recognizable style. He says he makes “goofy books with goofy looks.” His agent calls his style “warmly off-kilter.” His work is filled with–and perhaps defined by–an open-hearted kindness, resolute in celebrating the oddity in day-to-day life.

Yet, Hoffmann makes an effort to find a source of novelty in each new project. This comes through in the final result. Every Mark Hoffmann Book™ is recognizably a Mark Hoffmann Book™, but each is also artistically distinct from the others. This is a very intentional choice on his part.

“The colors and textures are what people know me for; they’re the meat on the bone of every book I work on. But I would get bored if I didn’t change the aesthetic from book to book. I don’t want them to look the same.”

Hoffmann will be the first to tell you he’s lucky. He’s had steady work at Montserrat since 2003, and today he’s the Chair of the Visual Communication and Design Division. Outside of academia, illustrative work has been coming to him with a consistency he would never have expected at the beginning of his career. He knows his media well, can pick out brands of paint based on the color. A lot has changed since he walked into the Rhode Island School of Design to earn his BFA. His challenge now is how to preserve the sense of spontaneity and discovery that drove him through to this point. The oxymoronic riddle sits in the middle of his recent practice: how do you plan for spontaneity? How do you build fresh discovery into your publication deadlines?

Part of the answer is community. Every Thursday night, Hoffmann starts up an Instagram live and begins to paint as the followers trickle in. He doesn’t begin with a specific goal in mind for the piece, nor is he always certain what the subject will be. The conversation this produces–between him and the viewers, and recently between himself and guest illustrators–helps stretch his mental muscles. It’s an opportunity to discover more about other illustrators that keeps the novelty close at hand while his hand is close to the canvas.

The other part of the answer relies on the sort of professional self-awareness that can only come from experience.

“I’ve learned I’m much better off if I focus on individual illustrations, but the industry requires multiple. So I’m learning how to manipulate my process to maintain that spontaneity. Rather than doing spread #1, then spread #2, then spread #3, I work on every spread that shares a particular color palette and texture at the same time.

“So I’ll play loose on this section one day, then the next I’ll go back and play loose with the trees on every page. I’m working bigger, constantly shifting my illustration board around, doing a little bit of this one a little bit of that one.”

Hoffmann’s audience helps with that too.

“It’s really nice thinking of the kid as the audience, how they interact with the page and how they read it. There are fun things, like in Iamasaurus there is a hidden dinosaur that shows up on every page. You don’t get to hide a dinosaur in an editorial piece.”

            Anyone looking for Hoffmann’s books can find them at Copper Dog Books in Beverly, where he recently held a reading. Another example of his work can be found just inside the Hardie building, where one of his murals adorns the wall.

            And if you’re trying to find him in person, try to catch him before he makes it to the Shovel Museum.