Northlandia: Gallery reconstructs prodigious art of former Duluth teacher
A St. Paul gallery is set to posthumously display Frank Hoffman’s work later this month.
DULUTH — Near the end of Frank Hoffman’s life, while he was beset by a growing array of health problems, his wife, Lolly Hoffman, asked him what he wanted her to do with the lifetime of paintings, poetry, sculptures, jewelry and other art pieces he had crafted — a monumental collection that crowded the couple’s home in Duluth, and later, suburban St. Paul — after he died.
“Burn them,” Hoffman remembers her husband telling her. “Burn them all. Have a bonfire.”
Frank, a former Washington Junior High and East High School art teacher in Duluth, and later, a Northwest and Delta airlines mechanic, painted prodigiously. Despite scattered acceptance, Frank and Lolly felt Frank’s work was underappreciated. A friend joked that the couple could wallpaper their house with rejection letters from art galleries.
“Nobody wanted to show him,” Lolly told the News Tribune. “Nobody was interested.”
Frank, who’d say he worked a wrench for 40 hours at work and a paintbrush for 40 more at home, died in August 2021 from an apparent heart attack.
In the whirlwind that followed — Lolly sold their house in the Twin Cities’ superheated market before Frank’s body had even been cremated — the Hoffmans ended up trying to give away most of Frank’s paintings via Craigslist.
“We just needed everything out,” Lolly said. She said she had no intention of burning her husband’s work, anyway.
A giant dumpster was stationed in their Apple Valley driveway for everything that couldn’t go. It was one of the first things that Emily Landberg, a Minneapolis-based artist who considers herself a “professional scavenger,” noticed when she responded to the family’s post touting a house full of free art.
“Knowing the inevitable, everything that’s in this house has got to go, and it didn’t strike me so much until I actually saw the work,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is too good. It’s too good.’ Maybe he couldn’t sell it in his lifetime or couldn’t find something to do with it in his lifetime, but maybe he was just ahead of his time. It was just so compelling.”
About 100 of Frank’s paintings, sculptures and other works now crowd her own home.
Landberg was drawn in by her find. Frank has a scant online presence, so she started researching the man and his work herself.
A scrawled gallery name might lead to a phone call, which might reveal a tidbit about Frank exhibiting some of his work there 30 or 40 years prior. More often than not, though, hints like that wouldn’t lead anywhere. Lolly often didn’t know details about a given painting or other art piece, Landberg said.
“It just kind of became like a game for me,” said Landberg. “Who do I reach out to today and see if they have hints about who the heck Hoffman is?”
Some of Frank’s work in Duluth includes a photorealistic painting of a motorcycle engine, which was part of a 1976 group exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Landberg said.
His painting often veered toward more abstract fare, though. Lolly recalled her husband asking her what she saw in a then-recent painting of his.
“Chaos,” she remembered saying. It’s difficult, she said, to describe the painting in words beyond that.
Paintings in Frank’s “Metaphor Series” hint at a broader story contained within, and his “Conversation Series,” also made in Duluth, attempted to capture human speech on canvas, looping squiggles that look about equal parts musical notation and oscilloscope readout sit at odds with one another around moody, sometimes clashing, swathes of paint.
But perhaps most eye-catching are the numerous “erotics” Frank painted throughout his career: stylized depictions of nudity and sex that range from titillating to graphic and back again.
“People are like voyeurs,” Lolly said. “They want to see it, but they’re afraid.”
Landberg’s collection is set to debut Jan. 13 at Artista Bottega, 937 Seventh St. W., St. Paul. The exhibit, “Act III: Who the Heck is Hoffman?” will have mostly drawings and paintings from Frank’s oeuvre.
"Act I," so to speak, encompasses the pieces themselves and the context in which they were created, Landberg said. "Act II" is their presentation to an audience, and the figurative third act is the pieces’ lives after the artist has died and the elements of "Act I" have faded.
“I kind of feel like he’s a family member that I just can’t forget about anymore,” said Landberg, who occasionally referred to Frank in the present tense during a News Tribune interview. “He’s literally in every space of my home.”