By Brian D’Ambrosio
Madrid, N.M., artist Melinda Hoffman’s upbringing was inner-city intense: a Chicago tenement flat replete with smoky, charred structures, vacant lots, and crushed hopes.
When she was no older than 10, she saw a car in an adjacent alleyway that had been destroyed by fire, later learning that it had been reduced to ashes by a neighborhood gang.
Hoffman and her sister received permission from their mother to collect some of the sparkling glass surrounding the burnt carcass. The girls gathered several bags of teeny shards, washing, drying, and then gluing them together, imagining the debris as itsy-bitsy brick diamonds. They spent several days making mini-castles out of their glorious cache.
That was more than 50 years ago. Yet, even now Hoffman sees unloved things – the seemingly ugly, the discarded, the long abandoned – from the innocent wonder of a child’s perspective.
For many years, Hoffman lived the artist’s bohemian existence, traveling, exploring, and adventuring, all the time living minimally but richly. These days, her home is an off-grid toy hauler camper, all solar panels and propane, on a mesa overlooking Madrid and the grandeur of the surrounding Ortiz Mountains and Cerrillos Hills. From that economical space, Hoffman fixes her gaze on a variety of mediums that make up her art.
She is overwhelmingly drawn to discarded industrial items, such as door strikers, hinges, plumbing faucet handles – much of it rescued from salvage yards, scrapyards, old buildings, and small-town hardware stores.
Before long, mundane leftovers find new function. For example, a door striker hung on a leather cord can become a modern piece of adornment, a clamp transforms into a magical ring, or a whisk finds new life as an earring: “It was once used in the kitchen, and now it is more badass, with black leather and spikes,” she said. “I don’t like to call it jewelry. It is more powerful than that because it causes people to look at things differently.
“I’m inspired by more masculine things like metal and leather,” Hoffman said. “When I was a child, my father would take me to the hardware store and I saw him build me a swing. I like the male energy of hardware stores, the thrill of working with tools and gadgets. It is a way of remembering my dad.”
For many years, Hoffman, who has a lengthy background as a fashion designer, was a whimsical itinerant. That was until a pair of severe car accidents causing traumatic brain injuries forced her to become less fanciful and more observant. The move to Madrid ultimately strengthened her capacity for self-reflection and made her more spiritually equipped to carry on.
“Madrid was the universe telling me to ground myself,” she said. “Madrid is full of creative people who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and who just figure it out. It is a welcoming and supportive community. Sometimes people think, ‘You are in a trailer, you poor thing.’ ‘Truth is I’m thriving out here. It’s hands-on and it takes a little more effort. It’s intentional. You need to be mindful of things, like, ‘Is there enough water or propane to fill up the tea kettle?’”
Hoffman is less interested in acquiring riches or notability and more invested in the immense reward of just living creatively. Her defiantly independent vein has resulted in a line of utilitarian items, including a leather hip belt devised as an alternative to carrying a big, heavy bag.
“I made the first leather belt for myself as a way to minimize to the essentials,” Hoffman said. “What do you really need? The bigger the bag, the more you put in it.”
Boling life down to the essentials, Hoffman’s art is her home and home is her art. If she spends enough time with something like a porcupine quill, fender washers, even old pencils, or tea balls, the thing starts to tell her what she should do with it.
“If I want to get inspired, I will grab some paintbrushes and play with them and turn them into necklaces and art objects. I will leave something around, like a basket of clamps, and if I am watching and looking, something will hit me.”