Artist Robert Off painstakingly recreates small-scale versions of places that never existed.
Story by Barry Kaufman
It started with toy soldiers. As a kid, Robert Off had a knack for the patience and the skilled hand it took to take the dull leaden forms of these miniature men and paint jackets Prussian blue, riding boots jet black and bayonets shiny silver. It continued on and off as he grew, generally as more of a hobby. Truly ambitious periods would see him creating doll houses for his children. Then, doll houses for fun. Then, for a cause.
I started screwing around, making them for charity, and I thought this could be really fun if I apply myself,” he said.
As with most things, Off threw himself into the research of miniatures well before the actual construction. He devoured books on European art, set design and stage lighting. He attended International Guild of Miniature Artisans workshops in Castine, Maine. And through the years, he honed his art. When he went pro, it was really a matter of necessity.
“I ran out of space in the house,” he said. “You have to do something with these damn things, so I started to sell them.”
Splitting his time between studios in Cincinnati and Hilton Head, Off has created some of the biggest things in the small world of miniature art.
Sometimes it’s an artist that captures Off’s imagination, and sometimes it’s a moment. “I was in Williamsburg and went to the shop where they made furniture,” said Off. “It was a warm afternoon, the sun was coming in through the window and you could smell the wood and the machinery. I love images where you can sense the smell and the light. It’s multi-sensory.”
You might be tempted to pronounce this library like the city north of the Broad, but it’s actually pronounced like the originator of the Beaufort scale, Hydrographer Francis Beaufort. “Years ago I was sailing and we got caught in Hurricane Kate and the damn thing turtled 1,500 miles out at sea,” he said. “When the boat righted itself, we pulled out the Chapman Piloting & Seamanship book and found this chart that showed winds, and it’s called the Beaufort Scale. We determined that we were in a full-blown Beaufort 12.” Of all the things to stay with him after this adventure, it was the name Beaufort that he couldn’t shake. Off subsequently studied up on not only Beaufort but the stately English library he would have called his own.
As with his ode to golf course designer Seth Raynor, here we see Off channeling the works of Ernest Hemingway. While several elements are replications of the author’s Key West writing room, much of this space is inspired by the aesthetic of his novel, Islands in the Stream. “These things roll around in my head,” he said. “The feel of it, the breeze through windows, mahogany interiors with really bright exterior coming through slats.All of these come together, and that’s how it happens.”
“For some reason, and I have no idea why this is the case, I’m inspired by artists who couldn’t make a living on their work,” said Off with a smile. Such was the case with Winslow Homer, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly who spent his golden years at a cabin in Maine. “I saw a picture of the exterior one time, and thought, ‘That’s kind of cool. I’ll create that as I envision the inside to be.’”
This time around, rather than drawing inspiration from an artist, Off sought out a collaboration. An avid fan of maritime art, Off met John Stobart at a gallery in Cincinnati and suggested the two of them work together. “His answer was no,” said Off. Undaunted, Off sent Stobart a book of his work, and soon the pair were hard at work on a small-scale museum featuring Stobart’s works as well as one of his biggest trademarks. “He always has a liquor bottle in his work,” explained Off. To keep this going, they placed a tiny bottle inside a chest, which went undiscovered until the piece was cleaned by a museum in Kentucky. “Someone had opened the chest, so I got a call asking, ‘Why is this in there?’” said Off. “I explained that’s where the night watchmen keeps his nip.”
With this clubhouse, Off returns to the familiar game of golf, with his trademark blending of different elements to create something both entirely new and familiar. “This is kind of a mash-up of my favorite locker rooms, like the Pittsburgh Club, the Rolling Rock Club, Seminole Club and the Camargo Club in Cincinnati.”
Very few of Off’s pieces serve as literal translations of larger rooms. “I try to pick a subject that doesn’t exist or that people wouldn’t know of,” he said. When it came to creating this peek inside the office of a golf course designer, he chose to focus on one particular designer, Seth Raynor, and let the materials and scenery flow from his vision of what that workspace would look like. “It’s interesting to me, the wonderful golf course designers of the early 1900s,” he said. “They all seemed to have a labrador retriever.”
This miniature version of the artist’s studio, like the works of Vermeer himself, are far more intricate and meaningful than they might appear at first glance. The first is the camera obscura, an archaic device that many believe Vermeer used to achieve such stunning realism. Another is the floor, 600 tiles meticulously arranged in the same pattern in which they appear in several Vermeer paintings. “This is more of an actual representation than any other piece I’ve done,” said Off.