by Alyssa Morlacci | June 11, 2021

Gallery on Greene Spotlights the Little-Known Artist Behind Lilly Pulitzer

Everyone knows the name Lilly Pulitzer, but now the artist behind those signature shifts gets her due.

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Nance Frank, owner of Key West’s Gallery On Greene, was 10 years old when she saw a woman on the south side of the island picking up broken bits of bottles on the beach. Frank found it odd and recalls telling her mother the woman must have a “leaky attic”—a term she’d learned to mean mentally unwell. Her mother responded, “Oh no, dear, that’s an artist.” 

A portrait of three generations of women. A mom holds a baby. A child peaks over a plant. A young girl in a dress stands in the middle. A grandmother sits in a chair to her left.
“Familia,” 52 x 36, oil on canvas.

It was the first time Frank saw Suzie Zuzek dePoo, who will be honored with a posthumous exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Titled “Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints That Made the Fashion Brand,” the show sheds light on the artist who created more than 1,500 textile designs for Lilly Pulitzer, for which she never received recognition during her lifetime. 

Key West Inspiration

Born in Buffalo, NY, and educated at the Pratt Institute after serving in World War II, dePoo relocated to Key West with her husband in the 1950s and started working at Key West Hand Print Fabrics—where Pulitzer sourced her textiles—in the early 1960s. Up until the mid-’80s, dePoo rode her bicycle to work, pulling inspiration for her designs from the wildlife and flora she saw during her daily commute: Key deer, seashells, wildflowers, conch shells, hibiscus and so much more. 

After dePoo spent more than two decades creating the playful and preppy Lilly designs donned by Palm Beach socialites, Frank says, “[The company] decided one day that they had plenty of prints, and they fired her, gave her a pink slip.”

While she had created so many signature Lilly patterns, dePoo didn’t wear dainty shift dresses. In her later years, dePoo’s hands were tough from bending wires into the shapes of animals. Her long gray hair was pulled off of her face into a low ponytail. She wore large-framed, 1970s glasses; loose flannel button down shirts; flowing calf-length skirts; and canvas shoes. 

Bouncing between different mediums and projects, dePoo made works including oil paintings, porcelain plates, mixed media sculptures, glass and wire fixtures, ceramic tiles fastened to wooden panels and so much more. “People would bring her all this stuff,” Frank says of the materials locals dropped off at dePoo’s house for her to incorporate into her art. 

Art as an Escape

She kept creating through her 80s, while sitting out on her porch with her animals—22 cats, a few dogs and even peacocks. Her home was on the street behind Gallery On Greene, so Frank stopped by often to bring dePoo lunch or just to see what she was creating. “I saw her almost every day for 20 years. She was my moral compass,” Frank says.

Suzie dePoo, courtesy of Florida Keys Public Library

dePoo died in 2011 at age 90, and while preserving the artist’s legacy is important to Frank, she says dePoo didn’t care much about the recognition. Rather, she was a creative without an ego, making art to get lost in the process—never the outcome. “Her whole life was always a struggle, and her art was her escape from reality,” Frank says.

Some of dePoo’s prints are in the permanent collection at the MET, and many of her pieces, worth between four and five figures today, can be found at Gallery on Greene. Artwork for sale includes a porcelain plate with a peacock, a mermaid oil painting and a fish shaped from wire incorporating shards of glass, just like the pieces Frank had witnessed dePoo collecting from the beach.

“If there is one woman artist who everybody knows as the Key West artist, it was Suzie dePoo,” Frank says. “Nobody else can come close. Her work was ubiquitous because she was prolific.”

A still life with a cat leaning against a vase of pastel flowers. Shells are also on the table scape.
“Scarlet Floral,” 20 x 20, 9 tiles on wood.

Artwork by Suzie dePoo