Painting for progress

  • Joan Hoffman

  • Joan Hoffman

The call of the wilderness sounded more like a holler to Joan Hoffmann in 1963. At 13, already a headstrong artist and budding environmentalist, she was determined to go backpacking with the Sierra Club. Neither her urban family of Southern California golfers, nor the fact that she had to sew her own sleeping bag, could deter her.

"My mom thought I was doing subversive things," Hoffmann chuckles. Since that first hiking adventure, she has traversed the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, the Olympics, and a slew of stunning canyons and creeks. Meanwhile, she has nurtured her skills and reputation as a passionate painter of the West’s wild, open landscapes.

In Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the late ’80s, Hoffman helped win epic battles to clean up two massive coal-fired power plants in the area. By day, she painted; by night, she fought for the environment with the Sierra Club and other community groups. "I could never have done what I did if I was employed by a regular business," she says. For many years, she says, her no-holds-barred activism made it tough to sell paintings to influential, development-minded individuals in the Rocky Mountains. These days, she says, the same crowd is grateful for open spaces and cleaner air — and her paintings.

Hoffman moved to Northern California in 2000. Once feared for her fierce advocacy (a rancher she collaborated with wondered aloud whether it was safe to go to a meeting with her), Hoffmann now expresses her activism through her art. Her paintings of wild and public lands both support her modest lifestyle and benefit environmental groups. In 2005, Hoffmann won the honor of being a Yosemite Artist in Residence.

Known for her deep classical palette, Hoffman creates brilliant skies that reflect an Impressionist-style light onto Western landscapes. Over the years, she has painted works commissioned by groups such as The Nature Conservancy of Colorado, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, and the Sonoma Valley Land Trust. By painting directly for nonprofits, she says she can maximize her contributions, donating about half her proceeds to environmental causes.

"Our visual landscape is there because someone worked for it," she points out. "Culturally, will we do in our whole landscape, or will we all chip in to make it better?"

On a cool California morning in January, Hoffmann’s backyard studio in Petaluma, shaded by two giant redwoods, is filled with recent paintings of winter landscapes in Utah and Colorado. Her easel sits before well-lit windows, below huge panoramic canvases depicting Yosemite vistas and tiny, captivating bird studies. A painting of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, made while boating through a 14,000-acre wildfire, reflects the shadow of flames and fear. Two sequential glimpses of the Yosemite Valley depict awesome views of Half Dome as darkness descends — first, muted folds of grey under a darkening blue sky, then the spectacle of fiery reds bouncing off the imposing granite.

These days, Hoffmann says, she aspires to a cooperative, rather than combative, style of activism. She admires the late conservationist Margaret Murie, who brought pies to divisive community meetings, and Elaine Gay, a rancher from the Yampa Valley, who used homemade sweets to help ward off the proposed Catamount Ski Area.

Art, it might be said, is Hoffmann’s apple pie. "I’m giving back in a different way now," she says, remembering the days when she risked jail time by demonstrating for a cause. "You can’t be arrested for a bad painting."

The author writes from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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