From the street, Beth Surdut’s home near Southside Village is pure Old Florida. Confederate jasmine clambers over the trellis that leads up a tiny garden path to the front porch, and bougainvillea blooms abundantly in the shady side garden. Get closer, however, and unusual items appear-two diminutive statues of the Hindu monkey demigod Hanuman flank the path, and gigantic fabric butterflies, souvenirs of a friend’s daughter’s wedding, hang from the porch ceiling.
Surdut’s little bungalow reveals her as someone who luxuriates in nature and enjoys other cultures. An exquisite three-foot-high statue of the Hindu goddess Saraswathi stands on her coffee table, and a little Buddha graces an altar in her studio, which has wood floors and low ceilings flooded with afternoon light. A colorful mermaid tile mural Surdut made (and which she can reproduce in glass, ceramic and tumbled marble) graces her bathroom wall. In almost every other room, blazing out from the walls in oranges, deep pinks, mauves, purples and greens, are her vivid, dynamic canvases that depict Siesta Key, orchids from Selby Gardens, mermaids, frogs, lizards and a riot of flowers and foliage.
The brilliance of these paintings is also captured in Surdut’s "usable" pieces-six table linen patterns, some of which were originally sold in conjunction with a Gauguin in Tahiti exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Surdat’s table linens are exuberant bursts of hibiscus, fern, bamboo, birds of paradise and heliconia on muted backgrounds. Setting the table with them is like dressing in upscale tropical clothing.
Surdut’s medium is fiber-reactive dye on silk; she also makes one-of-a-kind blouses, scarves, shawls and evening coats for women, and tropical shirts for men. Creating the pieces is a painstaking process. Once the dyes hit the white silk, they begin to spread immediately, like dropping water on a paper towel. So she first draws an outline of her design-which she always does freehand-before applying the dyes.
"It’s a lot like magic," says Surdut.
Surdut wasn’t always surrounded by jungle foliage. Born in Rhode Island, she went to college in Washington, D.C., where she lived for 15 years. She chose religious studies before attending art school, wanting to be exposed to a wide range of music, literature and art. As a professional designer of stained glass, Surdut took on varied commissions, including creating 24 windows for a palace in Saudi Arabia. It was while designing a stained glass window for a hotel in Key West that she became hooked on tropical flowers.
"I think every design that exists already exists in nature," she says.
Her passion for tropical flowers led her to Hawaii with little more than a bag of silks, dyes and a few clothes. She got into a gallery almost immediately and spent six halcyon years in Maui and Oahu, painting in a studio on the windward side in a garden facing the ocean. There Surdut began to design Hawaiian shirts and blouses; they were so popular a tourist once literally bought the one Surdut was wearing off her back. In fact, shortly after she left Hawaii, the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass., invited Surdut to show some of her hand-painted Hawaiian shirts and later asked her to design their entire exhibit of vintage and contemporary shirts.
After Hawaii, Surdut lived outside Boston for nine years in Harvard, a small, archetypical New England town with a village green and white-steepled churches, near Cambridge. There she indulged her love of writing by covering local events for the town newspaper as well as the Boston Globe, Cape Cod magazine and NPR’s Marketplace, and serving as arts editor for the Middlesex Beat.
Though she was happy writing, Massachusetts did not resonate for her as a painter. "I couldn’t deal with another frozen tundra winter," Surdut says. So she headed to Sarasota in January 2004. She’s already been featured in the Creators and Collectors tour this spring and had a solo show at Selby Gardens, a point of inspiration for many of her local paintings, including a series of "visual songs," paintings meant to be viewed with music. She also shows at Atelier Gallery and Kaos Gallery in Bradenton.
Surdut only undertakes custom linen designs in bulk. To purchase table linens, check out her Web site at www.bethsurdut.com or call (941) 957-1258. Linens start at $9 for napkins, $11 for placemats and $50 for tablecloths.