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"Mount Vernon couple adapts Maori art to make jewelry"; Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc., November 23, 2001 View
"Minnehonk Gallery showcases Mt. Vernon-area artists"; Franklin Journal, August 25, 1995 View
"From Bones to Beauty"; Kennebec Journal, Crafted in Maine supplement, June 14, 1996 View
"Mt. Vernon Artists Carve Bone Jewelry"; Franklin Journal, July 14, 1997 View
"Bone Carvers to Show at Colby", Waterville Morning Sentinel, Sept. 27, 1998 View
"Selling moose bones illegal", "Turning Moose Bones into Art"; Bangor Daily News, Jan. 23-24,1999 View
"Committee OKs sale of moose bones"; Bangor Daily News, Jan 27, 1999 View
"Moose Bone popularity comes with a catch- It's illegal", Boston Globe, Metro Edition, Feb. 28, 1999 View
"Mount Vernon couple adapts Maori art to make jewelry"; Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc., November 23, 2001

MOUNT VERNON - The ancient art of bone carving has found a home here.

Since they gave up school teaching, Gerry and Valerie Hoff have been transforming moose leg bones into delicate designs for necklaces. With requests for items growing, the couple now offers 320 versions of their finely crafted work."

They're all moose bones. We always use the leg bones. There's probably other bones we could use, but the leg bones serve our purpose," Gerald Hoff said.

The two carvers receive about 480 bones each year from meat cutters in Livermore. They clean the pieces and remove the marrow, then apply a hydrogen peroxide solution that kills germs while whitening the assorted pieces.

After a thorough drying on racks, bones are sawed into lengths of up to eight inches."

We go from big tools to little tools" as the work progresses, Valerie Hoff said. Band saws, jigsaws, drill presses and buffers help them create small works of art that fit easily between two fingers.

Before they took up the trade, Valerie was a special education teacher in Winthrop and Gerry was an art teacher in Livermore Falls.

During a visit to New Zealand in 1987, they were introduced to traditional bone carving as practiced by the Maori, the country's native people. Fascinated with the island nation, the couple returned each summer to explore.

In 1991, Valerie's outlook on life changed significantly when doctors discovered a benign spinal tumor. An operation proved unsuccessful, and she continues to live in pain —except when she carves bones."

I'm so focused when I'm carving, I don't feel the pain," Valerie said.

She learned the business during an eight-month apprenticeship in 1994 and 1995. Her instructor showed her how to work in a comfortable position that eases the strain on her back.

The official opening of the Hoffs' business was in 1996.

In their Mount Vernon workshop, Valerie relaxes in an old leather reclining chair. Tools connected to long, flexible power cords are within easy reach and so is a large magnifying glass that pivots at different angles.

Gerry labors at a more conventional work station, surrounded by the same tools and magnifier."

Our No. 1 selling carving is called 'Within.' It's an abstract piece. When you see it, it's such a simple design," Valerie said. Another piece, with a New Zealand sea snail shell embedded in the bone, also sells well.

The makers always wear their carvings, suspended from necklaces, before they are sold."

It's a tradition. The New Zealand Maori believe the carvings are spiritual. Carvings are held in high esteem," Valerie said.

The native people also say that a carver's life force enters and stays in the bones. The Hoffs, who each earned masters' degrees, are committed to carving and to their customers."

We have developed a personal relationship with many of our customers. There's a real connection," Valerie said.

Buyers often wear their carvings every day, she said.

The Hoffs, who have owned property in Mount Vernon for about 30 years, said when they started carving they used some cow bones. But the rugged bones that help moose punch their way through the Maine woods are superior, they say.

Prices for finished products, which glisten with smoothness, range from $24 to $200. Besides the portfolio of 320 designs, the Hoffs also take customer requests.

With a home on New Zealand's north island, the couple spend six months there and six months in Mount Vernon. They plan to open a retail store in June, next to their Mount Vernon workshop, off Route 41.

"Minnehonk Gallery showcases Mt. Vernon-area artists"; Franklin Journal, August 25, 1995

Excerpt from article by Anne Geller, reprinted with permission of the Franklin Journal

Valerie Hoff's hand-carved pendants reflect the folk art of New Zealand, where she learned the Maori art of carving cow bones. The smooth pieces look and feel like ivory. The description that Hoff wrote to accompany the display explains that "the designs tend to revolve around the Polynesian themes of fishing, birds, traditional legends, and patterns of growth." [Top]

"From Bones to Beauty"; Kennebec Journal 'Crafted in Maine' supplement, June 14, 1996 (included 3 photographs of artist and carvings)

Article by Elliott Potter reprinted with permission of the Kennebec Journal

Her raw materials are a s near as the local supermarket, where Valerie Hoff shops for 90 percent of the bones she uses in her wok.

Bone carving, and age-old tradition in oriental countries whose actual origin is uncertain, first captivated Valerie and her sculptor-husband Gerry Hoff, a high school art teacher in Livermore Falls, on visits they made to New Zealand.

Valerie, a Waterville native and 1966 graduate of Waterville High School, met Gerry when they were both students at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She originally studied to be a teacher; with no thought of crafts work, but repeated exposure to his life as an artist was tempting.

In 1976 and 77, they moved to California long enough for Gerry to pursue a master's degree in sculpture at the University of California at Long Beach. Valerie, with their two daughters in school and her own teaching career on hold, enrolled in a course in pottery-making at Long Beach City College.

Her interest and artistic enthusiasm soon landed her a job as her teacher's kiln-firing assistant.

When she and GErry returned to Maine, they were able to buy several buildings that were all part of Sundial Manor, a former resort on Flying Pond in Mount Vernon, for under $30,000. they located in the main building, a 14-room structure on Route 41. Valerie did more pottery work but returned primarily to teaching.

Some years later; Gerry was granted a leave from his teaching duties to continue studies as a sculptor; and they visited New Zealand for the first of what would be summer summers.

They grew to love the country and its people and eventually determined that if at all possible they would buy property there. They sold some of their property in Mount Vernon, retaining only the converted boathouse, and became property owners in a land 18 time zones away.

Carving is very much a part of the Maori national culture in New Zealand, appearing in many artistic forms.

"It's a country of carvers," she said. "there are carvings everywhere - buildings, everything."

When Valerie was forced to quite her teaching job because of a debilitating illness affecting her spine, she decided to pursue her art with a vengeance. She learned of a master carver living on the beach only seven houses from the one they bought in New Zealand. He taught Valerie the Maori carving technique that is the basis of the craft that she began full time on her own only about a year ago.

"It was weird," she said. "I had bought the bone carvings from this man years before."

The bones used for such carvings must be hard and dense, with no traces of decay, she said. Left alone, larger animal bones will gradually decompose from the soft, amrrow-filled centers outward.

To arrest that process and preserve the bone in a hardened state, bones undergo a boiling and bleaching process. Once that is finished, Hoff then cuts the bones into sections, already sensing the forms she will create.

In her compact studio next to the converted boathouse in Mount Vernon, she dons a mask and magnifying glasses and, sitting in a chair similar to a dentist's chair, begins carving.

Several hours later, when the carving phase is done, each piece is buffed to a shining, off-white luster, usable as pin or pendant jewelry, crocheting hooks or accent-piece collectibles.

Most of her subjects are living things -- animals, birds and fish, either in natural or stylized forms, or any of a wide range of Maori symbols. [Top]

"Mount Vernon Artists Carve Bone Jewelry"; Franklin Journal, July 14, 1997 (included one photograph.)

Article by Anne Geller reprinted with permission of the Franklin Journal

Valerie Hoff is seated in a dentist chair, but the drilling tool is in her hand. Just four feet away, at another bench in the tiny converted woodshed studio, her husband, Gerry, also works on a carving the size of a quarter.

Valerie and Gerry Hoff of Mt. Vernon are bone carvers. Their polished sculptures hang as pendants or earrings that convey the care and pleasure that go into each piece. This couple radiates an optimism that has been hard earned.

Valerie's melodious voice and dancing eyes express the determination with which she and Gerry persevered through the ordeal that led them to take early retirement from successful teaching careers. The saga began in November, 1993, when Valerie was diagnosed with a cancerous spinal tumor.

After a year of rehabilitation from surgery (which failed to remove the tumor), Valerie was ready to resume her career--teaching special needs children. The administrators suddenly put her on leave when they realized that she needed a cushioned chair and that she had lost some of her physical agility.

The Hoffs immediately began the complex work of developing a new life style, from writing a business plan for a new career to negotiating Valerie's disability arrangements with the State. They decided to pursue the art of bone carving, which Valerie had learned during her rehabilitation in New Zealand.

The Hoff's connection to New Zealand goes back many years. Gerry had been fascinated by the country ever since childhood. As a fisherman, he knew that New Zealand had some of the best trout fishing in the world. When he became a sculptor, he developed an interest in the Maori carving tradition. The country's politics also attracted Gerry. They "went non-nuclear," he says, and they have more acreage set aside for preservation than any country in the world.

Valerie says that when they got married, Gerry told her that a future trip to New Zealand came "with the package." The opportunity for their trip came in 1988. Their two children were now off at college. Gerry wanted to go to New Zealand to complete some work for his sculpture exhibition, the final requirement for his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, so he obtained a sabbatical from teaching art at Livermore Falls High School (where he taught for 15 years.)

New Zealand was all the Hoffs had hoped it would be. The people "are one of the nicest... the most forthcoming..." of any they have ever met, says Gerry. In the years following the sabbatical, the Hoffs maintained close contact with New Zealanders.

When they returned there to live during Valerie's rehabilitation, they discovered that some bone carving they had bought was the work of a talented artisan who lived on their road. Valerie says that meeting Owen Carson "was double-edged serendipity," that is, good fortune for both the Hoffs and Carson.

Carson had not carved for a while because of misfortunes of his own life, so he had to clean up his shop when Valerie asked him if he would teach her to carve. The request turned into an eight-month apprenticeship.

Valerie speaks highly of Carson's unique and effective method of teaching her. He first taught her the last stage of carving. he would hand her a nearly finished piece and show her how to complete it. He kept backing up one step at a time until she could make her own from start to finish.

It was at the end of this apprenticeship, when Valerie and Gerry returned to Maine, that Valerie got the bad news from her school that she could not continue teaching. They now spend the Maine winters in New Zealand's warmth (an important factor since the cold is hard on Valerie) working on carvings for the July to mid-November craft shows in Maine. They sell their work at "heavily juried" shows where the competition is stiff and the quality high. The Farnsworth Musuem Shop carries their pieces, and the Hoffs also sell from their home shop.

The exquisitely smooth carvings look and feel like what we might think of as ivory, but the Hoffs do not use materials from elephants, whales or any endangered species. They use only beef and moose bones, which they painstakingly cleanse and purify. Some of the carvings have an inlaid dot of abalone in them, and Gerry is planning to begin incorporating silver, gold, and semi-precious gems into the pieces.

Traditional Maori designs serve as inspiration for some of the Hoff's carvings. However, most of the designs are original, ranging from intricate animal replicas to graceful adaptations of Japanese and Native American designs.

The Hoffs register and sign each piece. Based on a Maori tradition, they wear every piece, to put their good feelings into them. Likewise, they ask that each buyer put the piece on before giving it as a gift.

Valerie and Gerry Hoff will be displaying and selling their fine work at several craft shows this fall, including the Common Ground Fair, Directions Homecoming at Sugarloaf, and the Colby Craft Show. [Top]

"Bone Carvers to show at Colby"; Central Maine Newspapers, Sept. 27, 1998

Article by Lynn Ascrizzi reprinted with permission of Central Maine Newspapers

It takes patience, but Valerie and Gerry Hoff are devoted to creating one-of-a-kind carvings in bone at their woodshed studio in Mount Vernon.

"The bone dictates what you do," says Valerie Hoff, explaining their unique art form.

"It's tiny pieces of bone sculpture," she says.

In some ways, their original artwork resembles the tiny, traditional Japanese sculpture carved in wood or ivory, "but it isn't true 'netsuke,'" she says.

"Our work is flatter. Because we're working in bone, you can't have the thickness of true netsuke. We have to create the impression of three-dimension. They're not sculpture you'd stand on a shelf. Instead, most are hunk on necklaces or incorporated into earrings."

The Hoffs also create freestanding sculpture with natural themes, she says.

"For instance, my husband has one of a mouse washing its tail. He's done a limited series of realistic, tiny greenbacked turtles hatching from their eggshell."

Abstract sculptures with flowing forms are also found among their work.

"Bone loves curves," she says.

The Hoffs' bone carvings and work will be on exhibit today, at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, and next month, they'll be exhibiting with 90 of the craftspeople at the annual Colby Craft Show, Saturday, Oct. 3.

They also sell out of a tiny show room in their Mount Vernon home, located on Route 41.

Their original art work draws upon a number of carving traditions, but the main inspiration comes from the Maori, aboriginal people of New Zealand.

"We started going to New Zealand in 1988-89" says Valerie. "That was the beginning. We went back every summer which was their winter."

At the time, they were both teachers. She taught special needs children in Winthrop Middle School in Winthrop, and he taught art at Livermore Falls High School in Livermore Falls.

But then, in 1993, Valerie was diagnosed with a benign spinal tumor. When surgery failed to improve her condition, the Hoffs decided to make a career change.

"We had purchased a home in New Zealand, a little house on the beach. We took a year off. Mine was a medical leave, and Gerry took a year off from teaching. We went to New Zealand that winter.

By chance while walking along a beach, she met a bone carver raised in a Maori community. He offered her an apprenticeship. Her husband had also been steeping himself in the Maori traditions.

"We were very much inspired, the Maori have a heavy carving culture. There's not even an equivalent in this culture. I's a native art form," Valerie says.

Now, after their enlightening New Zealand experiences, the Hoffs are both retired and work at their alternative career.

"We both carve full-time. Most of our personal selling season is from the Fourth of July through Christmas. Our production is done year-round."

Early on, the Hoffs had to educate the public about their bone carvings. "People would say, 'oh, this is scrimshaw,' " Valerie says.

Scrimshaw is a New England art tradition stemming from the old whaling days, when sailors incised images onto pieces of whale bone or whale ivory. The technique was also used by other cultures.

Many of the Hoffs' designs are based on traditional Maori subject matter, such as water spirits, par of Maori legend. But others have Native American themes.

"All of our pieces have names," she says. "Most of what we do, is necklaces. In Maori tradition, bone carvings are something you would wear, and it almost always is a necklace. We've taken the same techniques and cultural ideas, and carve a lot of animal subjects."

Each piece is hand carved. Pieces range from $21 for smaller works to $150 for more detailed work, such as Valerie's nursing mermaid , called "Mermother." The nursing baby is also a tiny mermaid, she says.

"Right now, we're approaching 300 designs. My husband has a series called 'Tidal Pools.' Every pool has a variation," she says.

The most popular pieces are those with a fiddlehead motif and swan designs.

"One of the reasons why we've done so well, is that people who buy our carvings don't see them as jewelry," she says. "that's the piece they wear all the time, because the piece is so spiritual for them."

In the Maori tradition, that's exactly what would happen, she says, referring to the fetish-like appeal of the sculptures. "If you received a carving in New Zealand, you'd wear them all th time." [Top]

"Selling moose bones illegal", "Turning Moose Bones into Art"; Bangor Daily News, (front page of Maine Day section), Jan 23-24, 1999. (2 photos of carvings)

Article by A. Jay Higgins reprinted with permission of the Bangor Daily News

You got your beaver bone. You got your bear bone. You got your bone from the deer that runs loose. But when it comes to making fine jewelry, there's nothing like the bone from a moose.

That's the conclusion of Gerald and Valerie Hoff, two Mount Vernon carvers promoting a legislative bill that will add moose bones to the list of salable parts derived from the carcass of Maine's state animal. The husband-and-wife team are now in New Zealand with a bag of moose bones learning new techniques to transform the skeletal remains into intricately designed objects d'art.

The Legistlature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee has scheduled a public hearing for LD 60, "An Act to Permit the Sale of Moose Bones," for 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room 109 of the State Office Building in Augusta. Sponsored by Rep. Elaine Fuller, D-Manchester, the legislation is designed to add "bones" to the list of commercially traded animal parts that now includes "head, hide, hooves and antlers."

"I don't think there's any opposition to it," Fuller said. "Someone said the animal rights people will be out there en masse, but we already sell other parts. We issue permits to kill moose so why shouldn't they be able to use the bones to make that nice jewelry."

Lisa Lange, and the Norfolk, Va., headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said poaching is the one reason the Legislature should reject the bill. She plans to send a representative to the hearing or submit written testimony in opposition to the bill.

"From the get-go, we're against moose hunting, but any time you create a new market for animal parts you're also increasing the potential for poaching," she said. "If there's a market for it, people will risk breaking the law to make money from it. In this case, it would result in more moose killed in Maine than the state currently permits."

Pendants, pins, brooches, buttons, tie tacks, bolo ties and earrings are among the items that the Hoffs create from moose bone, an idea that they stumbled onto. More accurately, the idea actually stumbled onto them.

"Two years ago we had the opportunity to carve in moose bone which we obtained as a result of an automobile collision with a moose," the couple said in a letter to the 199th Legislature. "We found it an excellent bone for carving."

Already experienced in carving beef bone and deer coronets, the Hoffs decided to test customer reaction to the new products. They fashioned identical pieces out of beef and moose bones and offered them for sale. Buyers chose the moose nearly every time.

"The feedback from them indicated that the moose had a more exotic connotation and direct connection to Maine, with its reputation as an outdoorsman's state," said the carvers.

The Hoffs were able to obtain large numbers of moose bones from Maine rendering companies that used them for bone phosphate fertilizer. Well on their way to a new line of jewelry, the couple discovered while attending a Blaine House Conference on Small Businesses that they had unknowingly broken Maine laws.

Hoping to ship moose bones to New Zealand, where they spend their winters, the Hoffs asked a supervisor with the Maine Warden Service if they needed any special permits for exporting. He informed them of the state ban against selling products made from moose bones.

"Apparently no commercial value for bones was anticipated when the statute was written," the couple said, adding that, technically, bone phosphate fertilizer was also an illegal product.

The Hoffs already have some pieces ready for sale, but cannot legally launch their enterprise until the law is amended. Fuller placed an emergency preamble on her bill so it will become law if approved by two-thirds majority of the Legislature and the governor signs it.

"If someone can set up a business that can use those bones to produce an elegant piece of jewelry like they do, I think that's a better use of the byproducts," Fuller said. [Top]

"Committee Oks sale of moose bones"; Bangor Daily News, Jan 27, 1999

Excerpts from article by A. Jay Higgins, reprinted with permission of Bangor Daily News

Members of the Legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee postponed action Thursday on two deer hunting bills, while giving unanimous support to a measure legalizing the sale of moose bones.

The change as sought at the request of Gerald and Valerie Hoff, two Mount Vernon carvers who create intricately designed pieces of jewelry from eh animal's leg bone. The Hoffs told the legislators that customers overwhelmingly preferred the moose bone to beef bones, largely because of the animal's exotic connection to Maine. [Top]

"Moose Bone popularity comes with a catch- It's illegal"; Boston Globe, Metro Edition, Feb. 28, 1999

Article by Kenneth Z. Chutchian reprinted with permission of the Boston Globe

It was a spiritual journey as well as the pursuit of a second career that led high school teacher Gerald Hoff to New Zealand to study the carvings and history of the Maori people. He wanted to become a sculptor, and, as his wife Valerie said, "Carving is as basic to this culture as the weaving of plaid woolens would be to Scotland."

How lucky could they be? Back home in Maine, the state animal, the moose, had a bone texture that was almost perfect for carving into stone. As he made the transition from teacher to artist, Gerald Hoff thought he was very fortunate indeed.

Of course, Hoff was on the verge of becoming a criminal, but he didn't know that when he tried selling his jewelry last year. The Hoffs were gaining momentum with their new lives as artisan-carvers when they realized, quite by accident, that their newly created moose-bone jewelry could not be sold legally. For reasons that even state wildlife experts struggle to explain, Maine has banned the sale of moose bone since 1981, when the state began regulating moose hunts.

Want to sell antlers? Fine. Hoofs? That's OK, too. Moose heads or hides? Perfectly legal. Ditto for every conceivable body part, including bones of deer, coyote, and bear carcasses. But offer a moose bone for legal tender in Maine and you are conducting an illegal transaction.

"I suspect it was because no one ever thought it would be sold," said state Representative Elaine Fuller of Manchester, who is sponsoring a bill to lift the ban on moose-bone sales. The bill has been unanimously endorsed by the Legislature's inland fisheries and wildlife committee and is awaiting votes by the House and Senate.

All it takes to make the Hoffs legitimate merchants is the insertion of the word "bones" into Section 1, Maine Revised Statutes 7464, subsection 9 (a): "Notwithstanding subsection 8, the head, antlers, feet and hide of any moose may be sold."

As simple as that task may sound, the Hoffs' predicament had state wildlife officials scratching their heads over why moose bones were singled out as contraband. At one time, there may have been legitimate concerns about unregulated sales of big game body parts leading to poaching, said Andrea Erskine, administrative assistant with the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Another possible explanation, Erskine said, is that nobody had the foresight to imagine a market for moose bone. Heads and antlers are good for mounting. The meat is good for eating. The feet are cool to look at and put on display. But moose bone?

The Hoffs say moose bone cuts easier and is more appealing to the discerning eye than the bones of deer, bear, bulls, or cows. It has more grain than beef bone. "It is definitely a denser bone, and because the shape of the bone is more of a triangle, it is much easier to get a wide, flat surface," said Valerie Hoff. "This makes it easier to do the initial drawings on the bone."

The timing of the moose-bone bill may be fortuitous for the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife department. Although there is no intended connection between Fuller's bill and efforts to increase the annual moose hunt in Maine, department officials were happy to endorse a measure that may encourage moose kills.

Maine is having trouble controlling the population of moose. The state now has 30,000 moose; the Legislature is debating separate bills that would increase the number of moose-hunting permits from 2,000 to 3,000 annually. The intent is to ultimately save Maine's beloved state animal; too many moose means the animals compete for a limited food supply.

Let it never be said that Maine treates its moose like any other animal. Maine moose, after all, live under a different set of rules. While the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has authority to change state rules on the hunting of deer, bear, coyote, or turkey, the agency must turn to the Legislature to amend rules and laws affecting moose.

The Hoffs have known for some time that there's money to be made by marketing moose. Tourists drive all over Maine's unorganized townships to photograph moose. They purchase petrified moose droppings at museums, trading posts, and country stores. Credit unions offer "moose dollars" for elementary school children to exchange for small toys when they open their first savings accounts.

"Moose are so much a part of Maine, and, being ungainly, rather homely looking things, they are often treated with humorous disrespect," Valerie Hoff said. "But, believe me, when people wear a moose-bone carving, it is generally with a sense of pride."

The Hoffs stumbled into their new line of work. Gerald had been a sculptor and a high school arts teacher for 25 years before the moose-bone opportunity presented itself. A friend in Mount Vernon, Jeff Stevens, stopped by the Hoffs' house one day in the summer of 1997 and reported that his mother-in-law had hit a moose with her car, killing the animal and totaling the vehicle. Stevens offered the moose bones to the Hoffs in exchange for a carving for his mother- in-law as a memento of her encounter.

That kind of fascination with moose intrigued the customers of Jed Davis, an Augusta jeweler who unwittingly tried to sell moose-bone carvings in his store. Davis is pleased to hear he won't be breaking the law if he puts the Hoffs' art on display once again.

"I haven't bought any of that for a year," said Davis. "But I always thought it was kind of cool." [Top]