If it weren’t for Henderson County’s thriving summer camp industry, artist and sculptor R. Hanes Hoffman Jr., might still be roaming the world in search of whatever it is artists are always in search of. Instead, as a young boy Hoffman was fortunate enough to attend summer camp in the tiny village of Tuxedo, North Carolina. It changed his life and indirectly gave the Western Carolinas one of its brightest artistic lights.
“I was exposed to Western North Carolina when I was a kid at Camp Mondamin,” Hoffman says referring to a popular 76 year old camp in Tuxedo. “I guess i never forgot about the beauty. I moved here about a year ago. So far, I’m really feelin’ the love.”
Hoffman’s artistic talents have focused on creating hammered copper sculptures of game fish that are highly prized as trophies for multi-million dollar fishing tournaments. Each piece is individually designed and created by Hoffman. Some hang from ceilings, but most are designed for wall display. A typical Hoffman sailfish in copper could measure up to five feet in length and three feet in height, plus being curved on one side to match the actual contours of the fish.
While his signature on the back and the copper penny brazed behind the fish’s eye are indicators that the work is genuine, there is nothing else like it on the market. If you see his work, with the color he finds and pulls out from deep inside the copper, you know you are looking at a unique piece of art created by an exceptional artist.
Hoffman doesn’t look the part of either a reclusive artist or of a mid-forties man searching for love. He’s about 6-feet tall, athletically built and says mountain biking is his favorite sport. He lives near the DuPont State Forest with an extraordinarily large and gentle half-golden retriever, half great Pyrenees dog named Hops, and his artwork is truly beyond description. He is a true artist yet he refers to himself as a craftsman. His work is exhibited by Asheville’s discriminating New Morning Gallery, but its main popularity is found as the top-prize trophy at fishing tournaments around the world.
Hoffman’s story, like his art, is uniquely his. His life exhibits the wanderlust of youth. As he recounts his adventures along the way, you begin to think that your own adventures sound like the efforts of a horn blower on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour compared to Louis Armstrong.
“The short version of how I got here starts after college. I traveled for 10 years. I moved to Islamorada in the Florida Keys, where I worked on a fishing boat. Then I went to Sun Valley, Idaho, then to Alaska where I ran a research vessel in the Valdez oil spil cleanup. That was interesting, and it paid well. I made some good money. I then moved to New Zealand for a year, where I biked all around the South Island. At one point I worked for a bungee company. Then I traveled across Australia and went up to Thailand and South East Asia. I was talking to a buddy who had stopped in Maui, and he said it was a beautiful place, so I went and worked there for three years.
“We started a kayak business that got to be very popular. We were the first sea kayak business on the island. I sold my interest in that and moved to Colorado. I ran a Blues club in downtown Denver for a year. I had to get out of that business before the lifestyle killed me, so I moved to the mountains, to Breckenridge. I bought into a restaurant there for 3-1/2 years, and I learned a lot about the food and beverage business. Yearning for my North Carolina home, firends, and family, I sold that and moved to Wilmington, NC where I lived on Wrightsville Beach for 10 years and explored my art.
Hoffman says he enjoys all the outdoor sports available in the mountains, but of them, mountain biking is his favorite.
“I’ve been a mountain biker all of my life. After I got this business started, I decided to move up here where I could be closer to nature. This is the right environment for me, enjoying the natural beauty and developing my art. I was for my Shangri-La.”
“This is a Mecca for an outdoor lifestyle. I moved here last year, and when I was coming to town, looking to find a home for my art. I knew some of the gallery owners in Brevard, North Carolina, but I didn’t want to pick one over the other, and I knew that was an exclusive situation. Then someone told me about the Brevard Brewing Company on Main St., and about Kyle and Elizabeth Williams who make fantastic beer. I met them, and we got along great. They asked me if I had something that could work in their tap room. I’ve built this huge installation of fresh water trout and this river scene, and on the other wall I have some other pieces. While we were talking, I asked him if he had any bartenders. He said “no,” and I told him I could help. It was a good way for me to meet people in a new town, and enjoy another passion of mine.”
“I try to live a balanced life, which means an overabundance of fun and not too much work.”
Hoffman’s present home is a house in a quiet wooded community near the DuPont State Forest. The house is the temporary home of dozens of his sculptures and the more permanent residence for works of other artists. All of Hoffman’s work is by commission except for the few pieces he displays in galleries.
“I’ve been doing this since 1997, and it has evolved largely into making very high-end trophies for major fishing tournaments. I create each one specifically for the tournament. “Most of the time the fish I create are a recreation of the type of fish they’re fishing for in the tournament. Each one is created from pure copper with nothing added. No coloring, no painting. Through the years I have learned how to pull colors out of the metal itself. It’s like painting in a way except I use a brazing torch. I’ve never created the same fish twice. It’s impossible. Every fish is different, every application of the torch brings up tiny differences in the metal. The colors are in there, you just have to know what’s going to appear from experience, and stop heating it just before that next color, the one you want, appears.”
The market for tournament trophies would seem to be limited. That’s not Hoffman’s experience.
“You would be surprised how many tournaments there are in the world. Just about every day there is a tournament somewhere, wherever the land meets the ocean. I’ve been around long enough now that the people who organize these events know me, or know of me. I just keep myself visible, and they come to me for the ultimate trophy. I mean, some of these events are multi-million dollar tournaments. They’re not going to give the winner a plastic fish glued to a piece of wood.
“Over time, fishing has become a competitive sport. The tournaments I work with every year could be in different oceans and for different types of fish. Most of them give away some type of trophy in addition to the prize money. About seven or eight years ago I started marketing my fish to tournament directors. Each one is a hand-made sculpture.
“There are a lot of different types of trophies the tournaments can choose from, ranging from plastic fish to cast bronze sculptures that are real works of art. I fall somewhere in between. My stuff is extremely unique in that it’s all hand fabricated from a sheet of copper. It’s a copper sculpture incorporated with a unique piece of wood. I’ve just kind of developed these types of trophies and then guerilla marketed them through word of mouth, social media and lots of telephone calls. You have to try to sell it, but there’s a market there, and if you can try to tap into it, you get to know the people involved. I’ve been around for awhile now, and people know me.
“The fishing industry is just one avenue for me. I sell in coastal gift shops and in a few high-end tackle shops. My one outlet in Asheville is John Cram’s New Morning Gallery. I’m very fortunate to work with them. I’ve had pieces in the New Morning Gallery for several years, and I’ve really enjoyed the relationship.
Hoffman refers to his art as “fish” and his “guys.” Each one seems to take on a personality as he conceives it, draws it and begins his work with the raw sheet of copper. He tells his visitors “this fish is going to a tournament in Jupiter, Florida.”
“I enjoy all aspects of the work,” Hoffman says. “What people don’t know is how much work is involved in preparing the metal for the torch. I’ll scrub on this fish for an hour before he’s ready to go into that vice and be colored. I scrub it with a diluted phosphoric acid solution then I use copper scrubbers (like steel wool but made of copper with larger loops). That gives it a brushed look.”
Everything is done by hand except for drilling the hole for the fish’s eye. “The only tool I use that plugs into a wall is the drill I use to cut out the eye,” Hoffman says.
The basic raw material is a 16 oz. copper sheet, which he buys in 100 lb. rolls or in sheets. Each sculpture is cut by hand then hammered into a three-dimensional form that is in exact scale with the real fish.
“My copper sheets are very thin.” Hoffman says. “I have to be very careful when I’m coloring it with the torch. Too much heat can not only take you past the color you want, it could easily burn a hole right through it.”
“If you asked me where my art lies in this, it’s in the heating, the coloration, the painting of the copper. Here’s what happens. The sheet is already cleaned up and bright. I put it in this hanging device and use my torch and high-grade acetylene, oxygen and a small brazing tip. I use combinations of gases and volumes to create different flames. Sharp or wide. You use these flames as a brush, and you’re both marking the copper with a brush and you’re pulling out the color in the copper. To get the colors you want you have to stop before you get there. It’ll go on past what you want, and there’s no going back. Focus on what you’re doing but be ahead of where you really are. It will change from color “A” to color “X” depending on what’s in there.
And exactly what is in there? That’s only learned by experience.
Hoffman has no apprentices, no assistants other than Hops. And frankly, if the big friendly dog can fit something in his mouth and get out the door, even Hoffman (the mountain biker) is going to be in for a chase. “He’s a wonderful dog,” Hoffman says, “but maybe there’s a reason you don’t see too many perimeter-running Great Pyrenees being bred with Retrievers. He wants to patrol the top of the mountain with whatever’s in his mouth when he gets the notion.”
Interestingly, Hoffman often refers to his work as a craft. When asked which category, or both, his work falls in, he jumps right into the debate.
“Craft versus art? Craft is art. That’s very much what the movement is in this part of the country.
Art to me is a process…and I don’t divide craft from art. As a craftsman I can take it to a specific commodity market and sell it as a trophy. But at the same time, that fish is unique. It was created from a blank sheet of copper; and as it developed, as the shape and colors grew, it took on a character all its own. It has taken awhile but people are starting to appreciate what I do. Very few people, if any, do what I do. It’s not like being a bowl maker. You see 10 bowls, and there are three that you really like. There’s not a lot of comparisons and little understanding as to how it’s done. They see the markings of the fish and the coloring, and they don’t know how it was done. I like that question, “how was it done?” It’s all in the metal. The art in what I do is in the patina of the metal. I find the color and pull it out.
“I experiment with different types of metals, but I always come back to copper. Because it’s warm and friendly to work with.”
Hoffman’s decision to live in the mountains has been good to him so far. He was featured in a cover story in the Transylvania Times. He also was canoeing with a friend, when an Asheville Citizen-Times reporter came by and put their photo on the front page.
“Last week I learned some of my work was on the cover of a new telephone directory. I’m really feelin’ the love. So far, moving up here has been an absolutely great decision.”
“As I grow older I need copious amounts of things that nurture my soul. This is where I’m finding it.”
Contact the artist:
Hanes Hoffman Jr.
Bluewater Copper Works