Elizabeth Devries landed in Key West in 1980.
She didn’t have much to her name or much of a plan, having arrived in the U.S. from her native Liverpool, England. But quickly, her life took one of those only-in-Key West turns.
She was working at a bar, serving the local shrimpers, and met someone who invited her to move into his house on Fleming Street.
He was restoring the house and offered her some work. She’d never even held a hammer, let alone knew anything about woodworking.
“I took to it like you wouldn’t believe,” said Devries, 70. “I loved it.”
That relationship didn’t last. But Devries’ life as a woodworker and craftswoman is still thriving, some 34 years later. She fell in love with the Dade County pine flooring and walls, the cypress trim and windows with the old glass.
She began to learn about wooden house shutters in particular. “I learned from the bottom up,” she said. “I fell in love with how they looked and it gave me a profession.”
Over the years, she worked on shutters across the historic neighborhoods in Old Town, including working on the island’s most famous architecture.
About 10 years ago, her work inspired her to create art with the virgin cypress wood salvaged from historic homes.
“Key West Shutter Stories: The Artwork of Elizabeth Devries,” opens Thursday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Key West Museum of Art and History, 281 Front St. The exhibit runs until Jan. 1, 2024.
You’ll see pieces of Key West history in these 40 art pieces – the dioramas and boxed scenes Devries crafts from old discarded shutters.
Lime green means it came from the Ernest Hemingway home. Red means Tennessee Williams’ house. Purple wood means the Artist House.
“It’s in me, it’s my blood,” Devries said. “I still love doing shutters.”
The exhibit reflects her life’s work.
“I’ve probably done almost all of the shutters in Old Town Key West,” she said, during an interview surrounded by her pieces in the exhibit. “On my bike with a little doctor’s bag I would go to people and fix the screw eyes, until I created my own business.”
Devries has crafted more than 100 diorama scenes, including detailed snapshots that take place at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the Southernmost Point, Blue Heaven, Pepe’s and Rick’s Bar. There is one of Kermit the Key Lime Pie man and a scene from the Paradise Dental practice.
From individual books lining shelves to the people dining or dancing in various slices of Key West life, every piece is from a shutter that once protected an old island home.
One of her most emotional works depicts an image from the Mariel Boatlift, the abrupt mass emigration of Cubans to Florida in 1980 that turned into a life-saving mission for locals, who helped the refugees make it to shore.
“It took a year to make,” she said, pointing out the figures of people, including children, clinging to the boat.
Devries’ wooden sculptures of Key West scenes, made from salvaged house shutters from across the island, are a perfect match for the art and history museum, said the nonprofit center’s curator and historian Cori Convertito.
“Her scenes embody a carefree spirit that is synonymous with the island’s blithe ambiance,” Convertito said. “Devries’ beautiful and intimate portrayals deliver a unique glimpse of her both as a person and artist.”