One of Jeff’s earliest impulses to sculpt happened at Riazzi’s Italian Garden restaurant in Mesa, Arizona, circa 1964, when she was six years old.
“Our table had white candles,” Jeff said, “and I remember using my thumbnails to press the warm wax into shapes. Every time we ate there, I looked forward to playing with the wax. I always loved playing in the mud, too, because I could squeeze forms from the muck.” Sadly, Riazzi’s closed in August 2017 after 72 years in business.
Growing up, Jeff stayed outdoors as much as possible, and claims to have been a Tom boy. “I was the perfect son for my father,” she laughs. Her father, Wade Hoffman, hailed from Gastonia, North Carolina. He’s the reason she has a masculine name. “I think he really, really wanted a son after they had my older sister, Patricia,” Jeff said. “And sometimes he says he named me after the actor Jeff Chandler. Then why didn’t he name me ‘Chandler?'” she laughs.
Wade started his career in the U.S. Secret service. Eventually, he was sent to Japan where he met Shizuko, a big-city girl brought up on the Ginza strip in Tokyo, what Manhattan is to NYC, with all the big-city accoutrements, including a fine education and an impeccable fashion sense.
When they married in the late 50s, Wade could no longer be in the secret service, so he brought Shizuko and Patricia to Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Jeff was born in 1958. Three years later, Shizuoka could no longer stand the injustice of a segregated south and insisted they move. After traveling throughout the U.S., Wade and Shizuko chose Phoenix to make a home for their family.
Jeff has spirit. She’s gentle and energetic, witty and considerate, and always creating something with her hands.
Jeff’s latest creation made the newspaper! She sculpted a life-size bronze statue of Pat Tillman posted at ASU’s Sun Devil stadium near the entrance of Tillman Tunnel. Arthur Pearce II provided funds for the statue and commissioned Jeff to do the piece.
Tillman is remembered as a former Arizona Cardinals and ASU football player who enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, and who, as an Army Ranger, was tragically killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by friendly fire.
Jeff sculpted the 16-inch maquette, or model, in clay from a photo of Pat with his long hair flowing and his ASU helmet in his hand. Officials at ASU however, asked to have Pat’s likeness crafted from photo of him wearing a helmet. She revised the model and re-submitted it to ASU.
They approved the revised maquette and Jeff proceeded to work with local foundry Bollinger Atelier to digitize the model into a 3-D image, which was then enlarged to 1.1 times life size and cut out of foam to form the core of the statue. The foundry layered the foam with clay between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thickness all over.
Jeff later crafted the letters “ARIZONA” AND “TILLMAN” and laid them on the life-size clay sculpture. When she made the 16-inch maquette, it was too small to place raised lettering on the jersey.
The 6-foot, 400-pound statue was revealed in a dedication ceremony on Wednesday, August 30, 2017, and Jeff, her mother and husband Mike attended as special guests. With the statue’s unveiling, ASU’s new pre-game ritual involves players touching the statue as they run onto the field.
The entire process of producing the statue was emotional for Jeff, who, as an ASU graduate, followed Pat’s career and story.
How did a young Amer-Asian woman become a bronze sculptor?
After studying fine arts at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Jeff worked as a metal chaser at Beyond Bronze Foundry in Colorado, where she welded parts together, ground down metal to clean seams and other surface imperfections to make just-poured pieces look like one complete piece.
Back in Tempe, though, her parents had opened a Japanese restaurant and asked Jeff to come help out, which she did. Next, she began her 25-year stint at Arizona Bronze (now Bollinger Atelier), a foundry in Tempe, Arizona, where she worked as a metal chaser, then switched to wax works when the pneumatic tools caused her hands to hurt. Jeff used dental tools to take down wax seams and design the gating system that feeds the bronze into a mold. She also learned the art of mold making.
“I love making molds!” Jeff said. “You must be methodical and plan everything out. It’s an engineering feat in mixing the rubber, brushing it on and them pulling the rubber as it sets.”
The one thing Jeff has never done at either foundry was pour the bronze. She also did not work on patinas for foundry clients, however, she occasionally adds patinas to her own works.
“To add a red patina to Pat Tillman’s ASU jersey, and a hint of gold to his pants,” Jeff said, “I brought in Aiya Jordan from San Francisco. Aiya is also an ASU grad and one of the best patina artists I know.”
There are at least 12 steps to producing a bronze sculpture and Jeff became intimate with them all during those 25 years. Here’s a five-minute video of a “How It’s Made” episode showing the lost-wax casting technique.
“I did the fine detail work on projects,” Jeff said. “If a piece required detailed precision, I’d have the stamina and small motor skills to make it right.”
Having Art Pearce as a client means Jeff went from being a long-time employee of the foundry to being their valued customer. Before Pearce commissioned the Tillman statue from Jeff, he had asked her to create a bronze statue of his grandfather, Zebulon Pearce, a former Mesa mayor who owned the local Feed & Grain store on Main Street located at 155 W. Main Street. Zeb Pearce is also known for bringing Coors beer to the valley.
Like most folks, Jeff’s life hasn’t been all work. She married, had two sons Jeff and Cori, divorced and then married Mike, a retired NAU police officer, 21 years ago. Mike also has adult children; Michael, Lisa and Kyla.
During her annual performance review 11 years ago, the foundry owner told Jeff her salary had topped out; if she wanted more money, she needed to work elsewhere.
“Like many people who hit a dead-end in their job,” Jeff said, “I considered going back to school to learn new skills.”
A Friend suggested Jeff teach art; the pay is okay and benefits are really good, especially having summers off! Jeff applied to an education program offered by the Deer Valley Unified school district and Arizona State University. Having a bachelors degree was a pre-requisite. Of the 22 students accepted into the program, Jeff was one of 11 who made it all the way through.
She started teaching 10 years ago, initially instructing 4th graders. Four years ago, she went to Sandra Day O’Connor High school to teach art and ceramics.
“I enjoy building relationships with the kids, and I learn so much from them, Jeff said.”
Jeff challenges herself to make something every day. In class, as the kids work on their sculptures, Jeff molds earthenware clay into small animals or abstracts.
“Sometimes, the little thing I’m sculpting becomes the inspiration for a statue, like the boy playing soccer, called ‘Over the Rainbow.'”
“Learning Together” won first place in the Prescott Valley art show and now sits in public spaces of Prescott Valley, Mesa, and Oro Valley. Jeff has other public sculptures, including the “K9 Police Memorial” at Wesley Bolin Plaza in Phoenix and Vancouver, Canada, “Charlie” at Wickenburg Ranch, and the “Scottsdale Police Memorial.”
“Learning Together” won the people’s choice award and features a boy with a ball and a dog ready to fetch. Jeff has a knack for making her subjects appear weightless and buoyant, even though they’re cast in bronze. And her style touches hearts, as evidenced by the connection between the boy and his dog while playing catch.
Charlie was Merv Griffin’s dog, and Merv donated the land in Wickenburg that became the Dog Park where Charlie watches over the visitors.
“When my students see my sculptures in a public place,” says Jeff, “they come up to me with eyes wide, asking for my autograph, and I remind them I’m still the teacher they’ve always known. I’m me.”
Even on the days when Jeff sculpts at work, she still arrives home and sculpts or paints. Usually, she works in her detached art studio, which she and Mike built in 2016. Their house in New River sits on a hill and their backyard looks out toward hills and into a valley.
Lately, Jeff comes home from work and sculpts on two secret projects. One will eventually be six feet tall and dedicated in a public ceremony. The other could potentially be a life-size statue of someone everyone would know (but maybe not by name). We’ll add news and pics when the statues are revealed.
“I look around and am amazed at how much I’ve produced,” Jeff said. “I was in a local gallery one day and admired a little bronze piece, an alligator bag on the back of a horse sculpture, and I said, ‘how would they do that?’ The gallery owner said, ‘Don’t you remember, you made that?’”
Jeff laughs at having made so many tiny bronze items and not being able to remember them all. If an artist needed a small item for their sculpture, they would ask her if she would create it. She’s made everything from that small alligator bag for a horse, to guns, holsters, rabbits, cats, and even a cowboy riding an armadillo. The last item was for an artist from Texas.
When Jeff’s students complain about not being creative, she asks them if, when they play video games, do they go through all levels the first day. “Of course not,” Jeff said, “the more you play, the better you get. It’s the same with sculpting, or anything you do. I’ve been sculpting for 40 years, which is why my students think it looks easy.”
Her advice for anyone who wants to make a living doing the creative work they love is to “keep with it. That’s what I was told by my professor. The artists who make it are the ones who don’t quit. Work, work, work. You get a little bit better each time.”
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