Our State Article

by Scott Hamilton

Holding his torch like a fine sable brush, R. Hanes Hoffman, Jr. paintsthe rainbow and speckles on the side of a trout. The trout is copper, but as Hoffman stands back to inspect his work, one half expects the fish to leap out of the vise and disappear into a deep pool of metalparts and workshop miscellany in the studio.

Hoffman makes meticulously handmade 3-dimensional bas-relief copper sculptures of salt and fresh water sport fish and other marine animals.The pieces are realistic, both in essence and in telling details. Many of the fish are life-size. They are burnished by flame to resemble, in color and iridescence, a fish as it flits by beneath the surface.

Hoffman’s business is Bluewater Copper Works. He wears all the hats; he is the artist, the shipping department, and he controls the accounts. His fish are carried in more than 25 gift shops and galleries from Texas to Virginia and galleries in many parts of the country. Additionally, Hoffman is the artist of choice for fishing tournaments (such as the Cape Fear Marlin Tournament) in need of eye-catching trophies. Hanes made trophies for 16 tournaments last year. On top of that, recently, Hoffman was one of fifteen artists recognized in an issue of Marlin magazine highlighting marine artists.

Hoffman was moved to make a living by his hands when he moved back to North Carolina after wandering over most of the world.

Hoffman’s road to being one of the premiere marine life metalsmiths around is long and scenic. He was graduated from the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a BA in mass communications. Afterwards, he decided to travel rather than immediately put his nose to the grindstone. He migrated to the Florida Keys where he became hooked on offshore fishing. Next he drove to Sun Valley, Idaho and ski-bummed for a while. From there, he ventured to Alaska and worked on a clean-up crew tending to the Valdez oil spill. With the money earned on that job, he moved to New Zealand for a year and “fished a lot” and then on to Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, and to Hawaii where, for three years, he ran a kayak tour outfit on Maui.

Back on the mainland, Hoffman moved to Colorado and ran a restaurant, he owned, for three and a half years. He sold his half of the business and returned, finally, to North Carolina.

“I had moved home because I wanted to live closer to family and friends,” recalls Hoffman, a native of Winston-Salem. “But I was in a sort of quandary. I had had a couple crummy jobs in the area and I was looking for something to do that was challenging and satisfying (on many levels) and at which I could make some money.”

Casting about for a future as he settled in the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach area, he “was very lucky and met Andy Cobb, a kind and talented artist.” “He invited me into his studio and taught me welding. I worked in his studio for four months and he encouraged me to start a business and start marketing my work,” says Hoffman.

His work nicely combines two areas of chief interest of his life. “I’ve always been a naturalist and enjoyed the wilderness, both the mountains and the sea, and my family and my family have always been very heavily into arts and crafts. I’ve always been awed by the work of some of the craftspeople in this part of the country,” he says. “That’s a glimpse into my inner motivation. And, really, I simply kept making the fish, tried to make each one better, to be a part of that tradition, and kept marketing them.”

He makes his fish in a postcard neat shed, which occupies a corner of his backyard. A workbench sits in the center of the shed, like an operating room slab. The walls are covered with photos and drawings and charts of fish. Several of Hoffman’s works-in-progress also adorn the walls. Tools are scattered on small side benches and a desk.

Hoffman, 39, states that he is constantly learning about his medium, about his subjects, and always pushing himself to higher standards of craftsmanship and more striking examples of interpretive daring.

“I think now I’m really getting a handle on manipulating this metal and respecting this metal. Copper is flexible, very conductive, and very impressionable. There are not too many metals that you can massage
into forms with your hands. But it doesn’t take too much of a miss to make a fish I’m working on a piece of scrap,” he says, and then with a depreciatory laugh adds, “Still, if you do it all day, every day, you’re bound to get better at it.”

Hoffman adjusts a bandage on one of his hands and laughs. “I bleed on practically each piece; that’s how hand-made these pieces are.” One of the most attractive parts of his art and of copper is that it allows him to
capture the nuances of the details of each species, Hoffman says. “What I do is definitely species specific. It is very rewarding to hear my clients comment on the realism of the pieces, which are in a variety
of scale and proportion. So the work is realistic and it is also interpretive,” he says. To ensure the accuracy of his work, Hoffman studies books, videos, species charts, and others who know their fish, such as his neighbor, Hap Fatzinger, a curator of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. And Tyler Stone, a Wrightsville Beach fishing guide and tackle shop owner who, Hoffman states, “thinks like a fish.”

Also, Hoffman goes to the originals, that is, the fish, and studies them. He fishes whenever he can, both in shore for red drum and speckled trout, and off-shore for marlin, dolphin, tuna, and sailfish. Whenever he hauls
in a catch, he “looks it all over; I’m sticking my finger in its mouth, poking and prodding. It must seem like I’m accosting the fish, but it’s really research.” He laughs softly and adds, “And I have to say that the R&D is most plain fun part of my work.”

This year, Hoffman is gradually turning toward commissioned pieces. These pieces are typically requested by sportsmen who fish and catch a certain species of game fish. Also, Hoffman is discovering an interest in
his work for installation pieces or multi-piece vignettes, from businesses and private collectors.

Hoffman’s favorite part of the creative process is signing his name on a completed fish.

“Not really,” he says, laughing. “Although that is satisfying.” “I suppose the most exciting and most creative part of this is controlling the flame,” Hoffman says. “Working different combinations of the two gases (of the acetylene-oxygen torch) to create just the right flame – which on any given day has a life of its own – to bring out the colors of the metal…to not only pull them out, but keep them…That presents great challenges of control.” “And it’s just very satisfying bringing something to life, out of metal,” he says and pauses. “…and then someone deciding to enjoy it in their own home. It’s quite an honor, really.”

That said, Hoffman maintains that, truly, all areas of his art and the business that makes it possible are challenging and, consequently, satisfying. He, personally, makes and markets every fish (or frog or bird, etc.). He not only catches the fish, so to speak, he brings it to the market and slaps it on the table of ice.

“Wearing all the hats means I don’t have to wear a suit; I work in my backyard, and I can head to the mountains to bike or to the water and I can fish or surf when I feel like it or when I feel the need,” he says, smiling broadly.

For more information, readers can contact Bluewater Copper Works at (910) 262-6020. OR BLUEWATERCOPPERWORKS.COM