Some years ago in Key West’s Gallery on Greene, I saw a unicorn — sculpted from wire entwined with bits of china, crystal and beach glass — gliding like a giant mobile, catching the light, gently riding the air. Nearby were ethereal, life size angels and jesters clipped from scrap tin or painted onto driftwood.
I was intrigued. The artist, I learned, was 82-year-old Suzie dePoo; she lived behind the battered wall on Dey Street and it was okay to drop by.
No one answered my knock. Open sheds spilled chicken wire, panels of wood, broken frames, paints and brushes, colored bottles, baskets of patterned cloth. Cats sunned on rusty chairs; Christmas lights blinked in the banyan tree. Peacocks cried from their pen. Mozart’s First Piano Concerto blared from a boom box. I felt lost in the fun house — part garage sale, part works in progress with nods to Picasso and Botticelli.
The screen door snapped behind a small, fine-featured woman wearing a man’s shirt and patched cotton skirt. “Hi. I’m Suzie.” She checked her watch. “I’m on daylight savings so it’s twenty after twelve, my time.” She said she usually arose at four a.m. and slept year round on her studio’s screened porch.
Without question, Suzie welcomed me into her cluttered life and studio. Here she painted Adam and Eve on weathered wood, twisted stubborn copper threading into fish tails and bird wings, a man in the moon. She wove clumps of chicken wire into a regal peacock. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do with the wire,” said Suzie. “I started stomping on it and just kept twisting.”
Here too, Suzie kept listening and encouraging younger artists, took in strays and strangers, offering them refuge and rooms in her ramshackle hideaway. In the 1950s she helped establish the Key West Arts Center and in the 1960s and ’70s started several galleries for new artists. “Art,” said Suzie, “is not static, it must be created and then let go, so more art can come.”
Born Agnes Helen Zuzek in 1920 in Gowanda, New York, Suzie’s own art career began when she studied drawing in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She later studied design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the Arts Student League in New York City. She worked for a Manhattan textile designer before marrying and in 1954 returning home to Key West with native son John dePoo. For the next 30 years, Suzie was a staff designer producing floral and seascape designs for the Key West Handprints factory, many becoming Lily Pulitzer’s signature trademarks.
In her mid-sixties and divorced, Suzie gave up textile designing to pursue her own painting and sculpting. Her work, now long admired, has been shown in local galleries and included in collections across the country. In 2001, Suzie’s work was honored with A Remarkable Retrospective at the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House.
“Work is your salvation,” said Suzie in her late 80s and still rising to daylight savings time. “It really keeps you going. I like hard work, any kind of work. Any physical labor charges up your batteries. I haven’t got the energy I used to, you know. But, I’m lucky to have lived so long and have something I enjoy doing. Age shouldn’t be a dirty word. Don’t waste your time worrying about it.”
On return to Key West each year, I quickly sought Suzie’s company and counsel. In July 2011, Suzie died at the age of 90.
The Studios of Key West presented a major retrospective, The Classic Romantic: The Legacy of Agnes Helen Zuzek in the spring of 2012. This winter I was happy to see that Suzie’s unicorn still glides overhead at the Gallery on Greene. Christmas lights still twinkle from Suzie’s banyan tree, and the doors of the Key West library open onto Suzie’s large, ceramic mural — a garden lush with fruits, flowers and books, Alice in Wonderland among them. I miss her still.
For more about Suzie dePoo and her art work:
–Elizabeth Howard, art editorFollow us!
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