9. GRACE HOFFMAN — March 18, 2018
It is unseasonably warm as I make my way over to Grace’s house. Daylight Savings has just begun, and the day stretches and lengthens, warm shadows settling from the tree-lined streets, blooming pink and white and green. After weeks of bitter cold, there is a palpable sense of joy — a sort of waking up again — that I can feel as I make my way over to Oregon Hill where Grace lives, in a light blue house on the edge of the neighborhood.
We’ve been trying to connect for weeks, just missing each other with our mismatched work schedules and various obligations. She studies graphic design at VCU as well as working at ink magazine as their creative director, which is a local culture and fashion publication run entirely by student volunteers. Grace had reached out to me in November, offering to have me document her space and interview her, but it’s only now, after the winter has finally begun to make its leave, that it has worked out.
When I text her to let her know that I’m outside her house, she is quick to come to the door, cracking the door open before welcoming me inside. It’s a house I’ve been in before, a house that a few of my friends rent, a house that has hosted a smattering of parties and get-togethers throughout the past months. But I’m surprised to be here now, in the middle of the day, with no previous knowledge that Grace lived here as well. She leads me back through a dim hallway and through the black-and-white tiled kitchen. Her long, striped silk dress brushes the top of her clunky white platform sneakers as she walks. “I forced myself to wear my favorite dress for this – I thought it’d be the right opportunity,” she tells me, smiling.
Set into the back wall of the kitchen is a white, wooden door and Grace pulls it open, revealing a small, winding flight of stairs. As I carefully make my way up, a small brown and black cat sneaks in behind me, darting up the steps and beating me to the top. “That’s Queenie,” Grace says, as she reaches the landing, which opens up onto a brightly lit, living-room type space. Two large windows send warm afternoon light streaming in, lighting up her two small arm chairs — one upholstered in a rosy floral pattern, and the other with a peach-colored velvet. There’s a small glass-top coffee table, a wicker shelf, a wooden white set of drawers, a clothing rack hung solely with winter coats — a furry blue one, a black-and-white houndstooth, a leopard print one. “This is sort of where I just put all my stuff,” Grace tells me, gesturing around her. A narrow doorway opens up onto her bedroom, which initially feels minimal, but reveals a sprawling collection of things — stuffed animals, shopping bags, polaroid photos, keychains, emptied sweets and candy packaging, all tacked up and placed around the space with precision and direction.
“I really like this room,” Grace tells me, leaning against her desk as I float around and photograph the posters she’s hung, the collection of stuffed animals in the center of the all-white bed. She tells me how nice it is to have a room tucked back in the corner of the house, away from the noise, well-lit and secluded. She is quiet and reserved, seeming to carefully measure her words and responses, smoothing down her dress often, tucking her dark hair behind her ears.
I ask Grace where she’s from, how she ended up in Richmond. “I’m originally from Charlottesville,” she says. “And I guess I just always knew about Richmond growing up. I knew I wanted to go to art school but couldn’t really afford Pratt, and VCU happened to be a really good school where I could get in-state tuition. It made a lot of sense for me.” When I ask her about her interest in graphic design, she tells me, “I’ve always been one to think about things visually, and I really enjoy the process of curating and organizing stuff that already exists.” She explains how when she was younger, she tossed around a lot of ideas and interests, delving briefly into fashion design and interior decorating — “I used to be obsessed with the Pottery Barn Teen catalogs, and I’d always rearrange my room and my furniture to try and imitate their design and decor.”
Grace sits down on the corner of her bed and the cat hops up beside her, curling into a small brown ball in the center of the bed. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what profession I wanted to pursue,” Grace says. “I watched my 4 older siblings go through the process of trying out different interests and majors, only to switch things up and change their minds later on in life. There was a lot of trial and error for me, but I feel really lucky that I figured out what I wanted to do early on.”
I ask her about ink, how she found out about it, how she started working with the magazine, what her experience has been like. “I always kinda knew about ink,” she tells me. “I had read it and admired it for a while before coming to Richmond.” She explains how she saw a wanted ad for a delivery driver for the magazine, and applied for the job thinking that it could lead to a higher position later on. “ink doesn’t really work like that though, and I eventually just applied and got accepted for a position as a member of the staff.” She tells me how she had the opportunity to become the magazine’s creative director, which she started last spring. “I’m generally in charge of overseeing how things turns out visually,” she explains. “I help coordinate photographers, models, stylists, and makeup artists in order to get everything together for photo shoots. I come to most of the shoots and help out and I also do all the Instagram posts. I’m sort of the go-between person between the content creators and what we actually end up putting out and publishing.” She smiles and smooths her dress over her knees, “It’s cool because it’s something that’s always changing — the staff changes and cycles as students come and go — which is what makes it unique. It’s really been the most exciting thing about being at VCU for me.”
When I ask her about what inspires her work, she gets up and begins to rifle through the stack of magazines and files that are neatly organized on her desk. “I’m really inspired by Japanese culture and fashion. I stumbled across this street style magazine called FRUiTS in high school,” she explains as she fishes an issue from the stack. The magazine was based out of Tokyo, Japan and mainly documented the street style of Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Grace opens up a thin, glossy magazine and begins to thumb through it, “I loved the maximalist style of it — they create so much of an aesthetic with one outfit, mixing styles that wouldn’t really go together to create something cute and unique. And the combination of pretty things with clunky shoes — I guess it’s kind of like ‘goth Lolita?’ There’s so much variety, and everything is so unique.” She continues to flip through the pages, lamenting the fact that the magazine is no longer in print, but happy that she managed to find a few copies of it. “As soon as I found FRUiTS, I knew I wanted to dress like that — I’ve been wearing platform shoes almost exclusively since high school.” She tells me how growing up in Charlottesville made her feel uncomfortable dressing the way she wanted, because it was so outside of the norm. She explains that it’s still something she struggles with — the desire to express herself fully even though it may be unfamiliar or atypical.
We migrate back into the small living room and I take some photos of her sitting in the peach-colored armchair. I ask her about her experience in the graphic design program at VCU, and she tells me that “it’s gotten a lot better over time.” “I feel like I wish I could’ve learned more practical stuff, though,” she says. “It’s nice because I’m constantly given prompts, which keep me creating and producing work, but a lot of the technical stuff I had to learn on my own.” Grace explains how the curriculum can be difficult for people who aren’t already fluent in design programs, and she’s seen people flounder because of it. But she also explains that a lot of the newer teachers have been really helpful and supportive, and her experience in the program has only improved since she’s been there.
I ask her about her plans for after school, how she sees her graphic design training factoring into her idea of the future. “I really like graphic design, and I really want to do art direction where graphic design comes into play,” she tells me. She mentions her interest in publication and poster design, as well as branding and marketing. “I still have a lot more to learn about,” she says, “But I wanted to get really good at graphic design, since you can’t really get a degree in creative direction.”
Queenie comes in from Grace’s bedroom and begins to nuzzle up to her ankles, and Grace bends down to scratch Queenie behind her ears. When I ask about her interest in creative direction, Grace explains, “I really like working with a group of people to help them get a project together. It’s fun being able to execute a vision, and do things that are outside of what you would be capable of doing on your own.” I ask her about what that individual process looks like for her, when she’s doing work for her classes or working on personal projects. “I have a pretty hard time actually starting things,” she says, smiling and shaking her head. “I’m so particular about things, so I often don’t want to work on a project until it begins to look like something I can get excited about.” She tells me that making mood boards and doing a lot of visual brainstorming is helpful for her to get things going, using those initial ideas as a springboard of sorts.
Grace tells me about a project for one of her classes that she’s particularly excited about — one in which her and a few other students are working together to create an imagined imprint of an already-existing publishing company. “It’s great because I can use it as an opportunity to work on something I had already wanted to do outside of class,” she explains. “Our imprint is called Puff Press and the theme of it is ‘cute culture,’ which is a term I think we came up with — or at least in the way we use it.”
She explains how her and two of her friends, Izzy and Sophie, are interested in the collection of objects and clothing, obsessed with things they find to be cute, and bent on “customizing everything we do.” She tells me that it’s a subculture that they’re still trying to define and put into words, especially as it factors into the introduction and mission statement of their imprint’s magazine, Milk Mag. For their class work, the three of them are currently working on collecting and curating content, interviewing artists, and getting the magazine together. “I like using school as an excuse to make stuff, turning my schoolwork into work I actually want to show, which is how I’m really going to get the most out of it,” Grace says.
We talk about places we want to live — “I feel like I would be happy in any big city — I really like public transit” — and she tells me about her plans to spend the summer in New York, where she’ll be interning at Nylon magazine. “A former student of one of my professors is currently working there and I got in contact with her through Instagram,” she tells me excitedly, a grin splitting across her face. The cat leaps up onto the peach arm chair and stares out at the backyard, through a window draped with a wobbly square grid made of blue pipe-cleaners. We walk back into her bedroom, where the light is a little better, and I take a few photos of her sitting in front of her desk, her collection of artifacts in the background behind her, haloing her head.
We talk about Instagram, about the curation of feeds and profiles, about posting work online versus more personal photos. “I post some of my work,” Grace tells me. “It’s a good way to show stuff. I know some people use Instagram as a portfolio of sorts, but I really want to post all kinds of photos.” She tells me about a few Instagram accounts she admires, and the ability to see a particular person’s “whole aesthetic.” “You get to see the stuff they’re influenced by, and it’s crazy how it relates to the work they produce,” she tells me. She explains how she has a love-hate relationship with Instagram — “I’m so particular about everything, so it’s hard not to care. I have such an obsession with how my feed looks — there’s this real drive for everything in my life to look a certain way.”
The sun is slanting in sideways now, beginning to set, and a small breeze picks up, brushing dogwood flowers against the windowpanes. We make our way down the stairs, back through the kitchen and the dark hallway and onto the porch. We hug goodbye and as she begins to shut the door, I take stock of the gold square that is lighting up her doorway perfectly, reflecting on the blue siding and white doorframe, her small face peeking out from the gloom of the entryway. I ask her if I can take a few more photos of her there before I go, and she obliges, staring steadily into the camera as the sun sets behind me.
→ go to the next one