Several years ago, a 17-hour train trip brought me from Montreal to Moncton. I spent the next few weeks travelling the stony coasts of the Maritimes, wondering if I could squeeze in Newfoundland. But as Waterloo-based artist John Hofstetter recently told me, “you don’t ‘squeeze in’ Newfoundland.”
Hofstetter has been spending summers on the island for the past 40 years, building an accretion of material memories to inform an artistic practice that takes shape in Waterloo the rest of the year. Beginning with printmaking, Hofstetter’s career has traversed public art and jewellery to his current focus on photography, sculpture, and installation.
Before leaving for his annual journey, Hofstetter takes me on a tour through his studio. Dozens of pieces in various stages of completion are arranged around the basement of the uptown home he shares with his wife, artist and teacher Karen Fletcher.
I am most intrigued by a series of ceramic chunks lined up along a windowsill, and others taking over a shelf. They are something between biology and geology, evocative of the teeth of large, prehistoric animals. Hofstetter tells me that they are casts of a feature known as the “devil’s footprints,” found in abundance in the rocky outcrops around Keels, Newfoundland.
These fragments form part of an outdoor installation entitled “Keels Sentinel,” itself part of a larger exhibition of his and Karen’s work that ran through August in Port Rexton. I caught up with Hofstetter this summer to find out more about this annual journey and his evolving artistic practice.
MM: How did you first begin travelling to Newfoundland?
JH: I first travelled to Newfoundland in 1976 to visit friends I had met through a fellow student employed, like myself, at BFGoodrich during the summer. He had connections with other young Newfoundlanders living in the Kitchener area, and I quite enjoyed their company. A number of them decided they had had enough of Ontario and moved home. I decided to visit the following summer to see what it was that drew them back.
MM: What was that first trip like?
JH: I was intrigued by the place and its landscape. Karen was a member of a co-op gallery in Salem, and one of her colleagues invited us to stay at his house in Keels if we wanted to experience a rural area. We accepted and in the summer of 1977 began what was to become an annual pilgrimage to a place that immediately connected with me in a visceral way.
MM: Was there always a connection between those landscapes and your artistic practice?
JH: Printmaking was my primary focus early on. I had been exploring the imagery of industrial landscapes, and I suspect the years spent working as a summer student at BFGoodrich influenced my aesthetic. Not surprisingly, the most influential aspect of my initial trips was the “discovery” of the mothballed Come by Chance oil refinery. This massive complex rising out of the barren landscape was the inspiration for a series of screen prints that illustrated the sculptural aspects of the site.
MM: Some of those early prints are now at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. Interestingly, the abandoned refinery was restarted in 1986 and still operates today. To me, the prints convey the scale and shape of the place abstracted from its original purpose, a quality I think also appears in some of your recent assemblage work.
JH: The process of printmaking, particularly screen printing, has always been of interest to me. Applying stencils to screens, laying down colours and images in a well-defined order, seeing the final image appear through the layers, and even the sculptural qualities of the prints hanging up to dry. The practice of building up layers of ink on one substrate gradually evolved into printing onto transparent material and assembling these layers to create a “sculptural” print. My current assemblage work could be seen as an extension of my experiments with printmaking.
MM: You also photograph urban artifacts in Kitchener-Waterloo, similarly highlighting aesthetic or sculptural qualities over their practical or intended purpose. What is the relationship between that work and the pieces derived from the landscapes of Newfoundland?
JH: My work consistently references place. This is most evident in the sculpture, but the photography is also grounded in its relationship to place, whether urban or rural. Place provides context and is the starting point for my creative process; it is integral to each piece.
MM: Your most recent exhibition is a joint endeavour with your wife, Karen, and touches on the 40-year connection you have to each other and to Newfoundland. What was the process of putting that show together like?
JH: Given our 40-year shared history, assembling and installing the exhibition was a more or less seamless process, and not something we discussed in great detail. We work independently and experience this place in our own way, but the threads that connect our work became apparent in the resulting exhibition.
MM: What did you notice?
JH: Most noticeably, the use of found objects. Karen typically includes organic or naturally occurring objects, whereas I tend to incorporate manufactured, or cultural, artifacts.