Grounded in Experience, Expecting to Fly

Heidi Hoffer is the eye of the storm.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

“When I was a kid in Illinois, on my way home on my bicycle after school, the tornado sirens went off,” recalls multimedia artist and designer Heidi Hoffer. “I was picked up by the tornado, tossed across the road, and thrown into a ditch. It was kind of fun to temporarily fly — but landing wasn’t so fun because the tornado threw the bike on top of me. 

“But the bike also held me down while debris flew all around, and I like to think the tornado did that to protect me.” 

Tornado 1

Since moving to Asheville this year, Hoffer has begun a series she describes as “portraits of severe weather events,” dramatically rendered in charcoal. She also creates sensitive and evocative charcoal portraits and commissioned pieces, inspired by “Victorian daguerreotypes, ancient ancestors, and live clients.” 

Bedouin Woman

Hoffer, who holds two Masters Degrees — in Theater Design and Technology from Northern Illinois University and in Scenography from Northwestern University — has worked as a set and lighting designer for theater, opera, musicals, television, movies, and academic institutions in both the United States and abroad, and her expertise in theatrical lighting plays a leading role in her portraiture.

Lutheran Church and Storm Front

As she explains, “In my studio I use my own Rembrandt-style lighting and do several studies from different angles and lighting situations. The reason humans are able to read a face is because of the shadows, so controlling shadows is really important in conveying emotion and telling a person’s story.”

Tornado 2

Hoffer grew up in Chicago in a family steeped in artistic talent. Her grandfather taught art classes, illustrated covers for Life Magazine in the 1930s, and her grandmother was a watercolorist. Hoffer’s mother was a public-relations professional and graphic artist with her own art studio — and her father was a laboratory scientist. But as Hoffer explains, “His real life was playing bass, violin, and tuba in bands around Chicago. He would often play for fly-ins, where someone would rent a big hangar at a small airport for performances of Big Band swing music. People would fly in dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos and have a dance.”

Black Parisian Equestrian

Hoffer initially set off on a path to become a veterinarian, studying veterinary medicine in college. She also thought seriously about becoming a medical illustrator, but “then, after I learned all that, I switched to music, then English, then theater. My first union card was as a professional musician, and I played bassoon in a couple of orchestras before I got my union card in theater.” She has also held multiple university professorships, was awarded two Fulbright Scholarships, and has worked and taught in the U.S., China, South Africa, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Langston University Choir Man

While her resume is broad, deep, and undeniably impressive, what connects it all is multidimensional storytelling. “Everything I’ve learned helps me tell a story — and whenever I do the next play, film, or drawing, a whole new story comes along,” she says.

Fascination of a Little Boy

Heidi Hoffer, Asheville, and @hofferh on Instagram. The artist’s studio is located on the first floor of NorthLight Studios (357 Depot St. in the River Arts District, NorthLight is open Thursdays through Saturdays, 11am-4pm, and Sundays 12-3pm, plus extended Saturday hours on July 8 and Aug. 12 from 10am-7pm.

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