Middlebury

Running and writing: Middlebury junior has a playful take on iconic art figure [video]

October 29, 2008

By Tess Russell '10

Middlebury students are a busy bunch, who often find themselves running around in order to balance schoolwork, activities and, sometimes, impressive side projects outside of their college lives. For Peter Hoffman, a member of the varsity cross country team, this ongoing "race" is more than just a metaphor.

Video: Peter Hoffman discusses new book

The Middlebury College junior, who recorded the second highest finish on the men's squad at the University of Albany Invitational, has recently written a whimsical new children's book. Hoffman first conceived of the idea as a fifth grader, submitting it as a poem to his elementary school's literary publication.

Nearly a decade later, "A Ferret in a Garret" is on sale at the Middlebury College Bookstore, the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury and at a handful of locations in Hoffman's hometown of Rochester, Minn. Hoffman is hoping it will soon be available on Amazon.com as well. The book tells of an adventurous creature who finds his way into Jackson Pollock's studio and, after accidentally knocking over several cans of paint, helps inspire the artist's signature technique. The connection between ferrets and abstract expressionism may seem distant, but it reflects Hoffman's diverse range of interests and involvement at Middlebury.

Professor of English and American Literatures David Bain, who taught the introductory writing workshop that Hoffman took last fall, is delighted to hear about his former student's funny, ingenious idea.

"Children's books have always been close to my heart," said Bain, "and even though my two children are now in their late teens, I've kept most of their books as treasures. I've got a couple shelves in my office reserved for my former students' books, and I believe Peter's is the first for younger readers. I'll love having it and will display it proudly."

Hoffman said that turning the poem into a book has always "been at the back of his mind, but in middle and high school I was always so busy with school, running and theater. Now that I have a little more time, we finally decided last year that we had been talking about it for so long and if we didn't do it now, we were never going to."

Over the years, Hoffman and his mother stayed in touch with his elementary school art teacher, Cindy Olson, who has since moved to the Twin Cities. After visiting Olson and enlisting her to complete the illustrations for the story - she had done some preliminary drawings many years earlier - they set off on the long and arduous publishing process.

The original poem remains virtually unchanged in the book, which was published in August. Hoffman arranged for a publication party in Rochester as well as a book signing at the College Bookstore in September. He hopes to distribute "A Ferret in a Garret" at schools both locally and in his hometown and plans to donate a portion of the book's proceeds to Page 1 Literacy, a Middlebury College student organization dedicated to fostering enthusiasm for reading among children in the Middlebury area.

The Rochester event, which was held at a local mall, solicited an enthusiastic response from its young participants.

"We rented a big booth and hired a local artist to come set up a drip painting station for the kids and get them started," said Hoffman. "They got to create their own Pollock-esque piece, which they seemed to really enjoy a lot. I think it was a good way to teach them a little bit about art history in a fun and interactive way."

Hoffman, for his part, continues to explore a wide variety of academic and extracurricular pursuits at Middlebury. A classics major, he also enjoys taking classes in creative writing - currently, he is enrolled in playwrighting with Dana Yeaton - and has appeared in the college's theatrical productions of "St. Crispin's Day" and "Jumpers." Most recently, Hoffman has become involved with the Italian Club after attending the college's Italian School this past summer.

One of Hoffman's most significant commitments at the college has undoubtedly come through his participation in the athletics program. Hoffman, a powerful and consistent force on the men's cross country team, has notched several impressive finishes this season, including a fifth overall spot at the statewide collegiate meet held at Castleon State College on Oct. 4.

"I'm feeling really strong this season," said Hoffman, who - like most former high school runners - has had to make the adjustment from 5-kilometer events to the longer 8Ks of intercollegiate competition. "I've gotten used to the workouts and I think I've learned a lot about sustaining a controlled pace throughout the races. I'm really looking forward to the NESCAC championships and the NCAA Regionals coming up next month."

Varsity Cross Country Coach Terry Aldrich says Hoffman has built a very positive presence on the men's squad. Aldrich and Hoffman have a particularly strong connection since Aldrich coached Hoffman's father when he attended Middlebury.

"Peter has made tremendous progress over the past year and he is now one of our top five runners on a very strong team," said Aldrich. He's got tremendous dedication and is highly motivated. He has worked through some injuries from last year and is stronger than ever."

So, what remains of that childhood obsession with ferrets?

"I've never had one but I still really like them," said Hoffman. "They just seem to have certain mischievous qualities that give them a lot of character."

Mischievous indeed - as Hoffman himself could surely tell you, the English word ferret is, tellingly, derived from the Latin furritus, meaning "little thief."