Audrey Mae Off’s work captures the essence of Door County through picturesque landscapes and iconic maritime scenes that anyone with a love for the county will immediately recognize: the bold, red North Pierhead Light at the end of the canal; a laker coming through the Steel Bridge; rocky shores with breaking waves; and seagulls among the birch trees. Not only do these pieces reflect what we think of when we imagine this place, but many of them actually contain a small bit of Door County embedded within them.
Off works in oil and watercolor, but she prefers acrylics because they offer an “alternative to smelly, toxic oils and solvents,” she said. The medium also allows for gluing all manner of materials to the panels, which lets her create what she calls “Super Realism.”
“A seascape would have actual rocks, sand and driftwood embedded into the painting,” she said. “They were popular with people who wanted to take a piece of Door County back home with them.”
The popularity of these pieces is evident by the number Off has created over the years – 350, she figured – and she tries to keep examples of the style in her gallery at all times.
Off combines a restless imagination with a practical business sense and strong technical skills in both painting and photography to operate the AMO Gallery & Framery on 3rd Avenue in Sturgeon Bay, but she spends much of her time in her home studio near the ship canal. This may be no surprise after laying eyes on the many nautical images she has created of the bridges of Sturgeon Bay and lakers on their way through the canal.
Off graduated from UW-Green Bay with a degree in art and worked for a time in graphic arts. She came to run her own business after first working at Harmann’s Studio in framing, gallery management and retouching. Then she moved to Orthober’s Gallery & Framery and learned about photo and art editing programs before buying the gallery in 2002.
Off shifted its print selection from nationally known artists whose work could be bought in any mall to Door County subjects exclusively.
“To me, variety became the mission,” she said. “Of course, I painted what I love about the county – mainly water and field landscapes – in the mediums that I like.”
She also happily traffics in nostalgia: A young boy fishing off the old railroad trestle, his dog entranced by a small fish dangling from the line; a bridge closed while a steam train chugs across; or three fishing tugs breaking the ice.
“Nostalgia is always popular, especially as more things from our youth disappear,” Off said. “There was a time when I couldn’t sell a barn painting, but now the trend is coming back, just like the pendulum. The tough part is figuring out the desires of everyone who comes in the door, so again, variety is the key.”
Off is currently working on four abstract, mixed-media paintings at once to restock the gallery from sales this past season.
“Abstracts interest everyone, it seems, but especially the younger generation,” she said.
When it comes to producing art for sale, Off is able to tackle each step of the process on her own.
“Since I do all the steps myself, cutting out the print middlemen, the reproduction prices are quite reasonable,” she said.
In the digital age, Off has the versatility to change size, shape and color to fit any décor. Clients can even pick out the paper or canvas they like.
And of course there’s the framing business. It was 44 years ago when she framed her first Gerhard Miller painting at Harmann, and now her business attracts people from all over who want to frame paintings and photographs, but also needlepoint, sports posters and the recognitions that proud parents want to display. Off has turned over much of the framing work to her significant other, Dave Martin, who also handles much of the business side of the gallery, giving her more time to paint.
Off has lived in Sturgeon Bay her whole life, and it’s clear that the county’s history is very important to her – evident in the collection of old black-and-white Door County photography she’s amassed, and the iconic imagery she hangs in her gallery.