Susann D'Antonio's artistic offerings range from embellished gourds to mixed-media encaustic pieces to huge "living art" ensembles for Key West's Fantasy Fest celebration. And while the multitalented D'Antonio can't remember ever aspiring to a career outside the arts, she credits collisions with snowbanks, a cooperative cat and a yellow submarine with inspiring much of her Keys creativity.
She encountered the snowbanks in 1970s Colorado, where she lived in Breckenridge as a soon-to-be-divorced mom raising a young son. After her car collided with one too many of them, she took a friend's advice and headed for snow-free Big Pine Key in the Lower Florida Keys — where she shortly "collided" with sculptor and musician Bobby D'Antonio, who ultimately became her husband.
"That was the beginning of that story," Susann D'Antonio said.
Moving to Big Pine also was the beginning of her professional art career. When she discovered a book on artistic gourds, she realized they could provide a unique "canvas" for her talents.
"I've never been really interested in traditional painting; I've always been more interested in mixed media and incorporating unusual things into pieces," said D'Antonio. "My other interest is doing things dimensionally, so that's why the gourds appealed to me."
Today her intriguing gourds — colorfully painted, wood-burned and adorned with elements that range from woven seagrass to whimsical feathers — can be found at Big Pine's Artists in Paradise Gallery, the Key West Art Center and Key West's Frangipani Gallery.
In the early 1990s D'Antonio's love for multidimensional contemporary art led her, with Bobby D'Antonio, to begin crafting pieces much larger than gourds. And that's where the cat and the yellow submarine played their role in her creative evolution.
Then as now, Key West's 10-day Fantasy Fest costuming and masking celebration offered a showcase for artists who enjoyed designing elaborate costumes, headdresses and floats. Their creations starred in the festival's lavish grand parade and multiple costume competitions, including an offbeat contest for dressed-up pets that sparked D'Antonio's imagination.
"I had this cat that was a big wet noodle — you could do anything with him," she said. "So I made him a little Carmen Miranda costume, complete with a hat with fruit, and we won second place."
For the following year's pet masquerade, D'Antonio costumed the cat as a parrot.
The subsequent festival had a 1960s theme. Inspired by the Beatles' classic ditty, she and Bobby built a yellow submarine shape and tried to put it on their dog. When the canine refused to cooperate, Susann decided to wear the "sub" herself and march in the Fantasy Fest parade.
"Bobby altered it so it fit on my shoulders, and we walked the parade," she recalled. "As I walked, people just burst into 'Yellow Submarine.' It was like this wave of the song following me for three hours."
Hooked by the creative process and interaction with festival crowds, the couple began designing bigger and more elaborate pieces for Susann to wear each year. Ultimately their flamboyant constructions grew into crosses between gigantic costumes and small parade floats — including a "Ben Her" ensemble featuring Susann as a gladiator in a chariot pulled by five seahorses, and a 12-foot-tall "Octopus' Garden" that consisted of a giant purple lamé octopus atop a shipwreck encrusted with underwater creatures.
"Fantasy Fest actually was a good impetus for me, because Bobby and I created our costumes together and it would be a very intensely creative two months," Susann D'Antonio explained. "It upped my momentum and kind of jumpstarted everything for me."
Seven years ago she took a class in encaustic painting — heavily textural painting with beeswax and resin — intending to enhance her gourds. Instead, it led her into a new artistic phase. After exploring two-dimensional encaustic painting, she began crafting multi-dimensional mixed-media pieces and small sculptures painted with the encaustic.
"Everything leads to something else, like a winding path, and that's one of the things about art that's so wonderful," D'Antonio said.
As well as pursuing her own muse, D'Antonio operates a frame shop with her husband in the back of Artists in Paradise Gallery. Her pastimes include enjoying the Keys' snow-free weather and warm ocean water. And while she's fond of traveling, she's equally happy to come home to the Big Pine house where she and Bobby have lived for 31 years.
"I'm not searching for a better place," said D'Antonio. "I've found the better place — a place that's creative, that has fabulous nature and small-town open warmth and friendliness. That's what keeps us here."
D'Antonio operates a frame shop with her husband in the back of Artists in Paradise Gallery on Big Pine Key.
D'Antonio's intriguing gourds — colorfully painted, wood-burned and adorned with elements that range from woven seagrass to whimsical feathers — can be found at Big Pine's Artists in Paradise Gallery, the Key West Art Center and Key West's Frangipani Gallery.
This piece is titled "Bahama Mama II."
The D'Antonio's flamboyant constructions grew into crosses between gigantic costumes and small parade floats, such as this Old Woman in a Shoe. Image: Andy Newman