Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Dirt Art Queen
Kristin Hoffman blends dirt and art into livelihood
By Karen Edwards
APRIL 2010 Issue
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DirtArtDesign, a one-woman landscape art business, keeps Kristin Hoffman busy and fulfilled.
Photo © Rick Borgia
Now that the weather has turned nice again – and walks seem more do-able than when 20 inches of snow covered the ground – take some time to stroll down West Lincoln Street in the Short North’s Italian Village area. As you do, keep your eyes open for the front yard that features sewer pipes of various shapes and sizes, adorned with plants and found-art objects, arranged whimsically across the pocket-sized lawn. This kind of open-air art installation doesn’t just happen by accident, you know. To achieve the harmonious blend of art and nature, quirky and practical, you need someone like Kristin Hoffman – aka The Dirt Artist.
Hoffman is a product of the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD), graduating with a BFA in Advertising Design. How she jumped to landscape design from a career in advertising is a story that, like most stories, paints a retrospective of her life.
Picture a young girl who has been fascinated “from the time I was sentient” in gardens. “My mother had flower gardens around our house,” Hoffman recalls, and when she or one of her two sisters (Kristen is the middle child) were bad, their mother would send them off to weed the garden. “My sisters hated it,” she says – but not Kristen. “I loved doing it.”
When she graduated from high school in North Canton, Hoffman was awarded a four-year scholarship to CCAD. She moved to Columbus and found living space near the campus. “There wasn’t room for a garden there, so I’d plant containers and work with houseplants,” she says. Later, when she moved to another location, she was dismayed to find a gravel parking lot instead of a yard. “I raked out all the gravel and brought in dirt so I could plant,” she says. Because she was a student, she didn’t have a lot of money to create the kind of garden she really wanted, but “when you don’t have the means, you use what you have.” What Hoffman had was junk. She created a fence of hubcaps and used found objects as garden sculpture – and while not everyone found Hoffman’s mother-of-invention garden to their taste, there was no arguing the fact that it was attention-grabbing. Soon, neighbors were wandering over to check out landscaped space – especially the children. “I learned at that stage how a garden and landscaping can pull a community together,” she says.
A career in advertising
Pipe Dream, an ever-evolving landscape design by Hoffman on W. Lincoln Street. The plants are changed seasonally.
At that point, however, gardening was just an avocation. Art would be her vocation, she decided, and specifically advertising art. She was good at it and she knew it would pay the bills. After graduating from CCAD, Hoffman was offered a job at Ron Foth Retail, a Columbus ad agency, where Hoffman worked for a year and a half. “I got tired of the work,” she says, and since a friend had just opened an illustration studio, she quit the agency and went to work there. But the work was sporadic, she says. Hoffman knew, in order to pay her bills, she would need a more reliable income stream, so, on the advice of a friend, she went to New York and landed a job with a large agency there, eventually serving as the art director for the Wendy’s account. Wendy’s, of course, was started by Columbus’s Dave Thomas – which may just show that you can leave Columbus, but the city has a way of catching up with you.
Hoffman felt like she was finally on the right path. She was on the fast-track, enjoying the money, life in the Big Apple, her job, and crossing the country with the senior art director on various photo shoots. Then, one day, the pair was involved in a horrific car accident. Hoffman spent major time in the hospital – and to make matters worse, the driver who caused the accident had no insurance. When she returned to work, the charmed life she had been living had lost its luster.
“I was unhappy,” she says. She asked off the account because she no longer wished to travel, and that request seemed to breed ill feelings at the office. “I was given less glamorous accounts. The work I was given was mundane. It seemed like it was stuff no one else wanted to do, so I looked around for other work.”
About this time, Hoffman’s mother was told she had cancer. Hoffman has always had a close relationship with her mom, so when she heard the news, she quit her job, moved back to Columbus and spent time caring for her mother. “It was the best thing I ever did,” says Hoffman. Hoffman’s mother died a short time later. “I was glad I had taken the time to spend with her. She was really a very wise, very strong woman. She had been a first-grade teacher, and she loved children,” says Hoffman. “I think I absorbed that part of her.”
The gardening begins
Hoffman knew she needed to get back into the world, but she now approached it with a new-found appreciation for life’s brevity. This time, she didn’t want to settle. She wanted to meet life on her own terms, so instead of advertising, Hoffman decided to follow her heart and pursue gardening and landscaping. She was offered a job by F & W Properties, after they noticed her working in her yard, and jumped at the opportunity it offered, eventually becoming a landscaping supervisor. “The job taught me a lot about landscaping and plants. I just absorbed everything like a sponge,” she says.
She had also had the earlier benefit of a mentor, a man who wandered into her hubcap garden one day to express his admiration. “He had been raised on a farm and his mother had been the head of the national horticultural society,” she says. “He taught me a lot, but nothing formally. We’d go for a walk, and he’d point out something like a tree and tell me its name, then explain that it doesn’t typically grow in this part of the country.” Time with him, she says, was like sitting down with a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
By 1999, Hoffman felt confident enough in her landscaping ability to start her own business. She called it Dirt Art.
“I notice people don’t pay nearly as much attention to their home’s exterior as to its interior,” she says. If there is landscaping, it often lacks a design element – and the appropriate kind of plants for the design and location. “People hire interior decorators, but they don’t think about exterior decorators,” she says. She has set out to change that.
Hoffman does little advertising for her business. Most of her clients arrive by word-of-mouth – like the owner of West Lincoln’s Pipe Dreams.
“I try not to do yard maintenance, like mowing and weeding,” she says. But at West Lincoln, she enjoys switching out the various container plants according to the season. She’ll also swap out trees. “I’ll move out the Christmas trees soon and put in banana trees or something else for summer,” she says.
When you hire Hoffman, you get Hoffman – and just Hoffman. As a one-woman shop, she does it all. She’ll sketch the plan, bring out the tiller, haul in the materials and do all the planting. Oh yes – she’ll also make the art and may even create the outdoor furniture for your patio or deck.
“I’m into chainsaw carving,” says Hoffman with her signature throaty laugh. “I have three or four chainsaws” – which she has used to create chairs for her own backyard space.
Bling and tattoos
She welds, too, crafting art for her landscapes. Lately, she’s experimenting with what she calls “house bling.” “I’ve made a necklace for my chimney,” she says. To make the necklace, Hoffman welded together large, heavy medallions and set out to drape the chain around her chimney – only to find her 100-year old chimney isn’t especially happy with the adornment. It’s too fragile – but clients with chimneys made of sturdier stuff are welcome to try the Hoffman-created house bling.
Bling, of course, is just a piece of Hoffman’s Dirt Art style. There is also the “house tattoo.” Again, Hoffman laughs. “I was visiting out West and fell in love with the tribal armbands I saw there,” she says. Hoffman returned home and true to her artist’s nature, she promptly created stencils with the same kind of Old West look and feel. “I use the stencil to decorate the outside of a house,” she says – sometimes with the tribal design, other times with a single initial. It all depends on the landscape and the client.
While out West, Hoffman says she was also influenced by the opulent gates and entrances to the region’s ranches. She’s now bringing some of that same Western flair to a client’s home in Clintonville by building a garden entrance with that opulent feel.
When Hoffman is finished with work, she returns to her home on a triple lot just east of Children’s Hospital. Its exterior space is filled with trees and gardens, a patio and art. “It’s funky but functional, too,” she says.
The artist’s garden
From her first year living there, Hoffman’s garden has attracted the neighborhood’s children. And Hoffman loves it. She has a heart of gold and has been known to take in some of the area’s homeless children for a time, when she realized they had nowhere to go when they left her garden. “I feel like I’m carrying on my mother’s work,” she says. That extends to her mother’s gift of teaching as well. Hoffman teaches gardening skills to all who come to her garden, large and small, but she especially enjoys teaching the children. “This is a low-income area and kind of tough,” she says. Until Hoffman arrived, “These kids didn’t have any idea you could grow your food.”
Hoffman recalls the first time her tomato plants threw off fruit. The children plucked the small green, marble-sized tomatoes off the vine and brought them to her. They wouldn’t believe they were tomatoes – those large, red things that come packed in cellophane containers at the grocery store. “I had to tell them those small things would become tomatoes if they just let them grow,” Hoffman says.
Now, those same children gather on her property each spring to plant the seeds that will become tomatoes and flowers and other vegetables as well. “Last spring, 23 kids showed up for the planting,” she says.
They’re not the only ones. Adults stop by her garden as well, often enjoying their morning cup of coffee on Hoffman’s patio before heading to jobs and the bustle of the day. “It’s become a neighborhood hangout,” Hoffman says.
She couldn’t be more proud that her garden is bringing together a community and breaking some long-held stereotypes. “Many of these kids have never interacted with a white person before,” says Hoffman. “Now, they have, so they’re less distrustful.”
Hoffman is also teaching a lesson she hopes both children and adults absorb. “You don’t need a lot of material possessions to enrich your life. The dirt, the trees, the flowers and fresh vegetables are all anyone really needs to be happy,” she says.
For Hoffman, it’s an easy lesson to teach. She may have taken a circuitous and sometimes difficult path to reach this philosophy – and her Dirt Art career, but it’s one she now embraces passionately – and she seems just as thrilled to pass it on.
To contact Kristin Hoffman about her landscape and art-installation service, DirtArtDesign, send an email to email@example.com
© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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