Artist and Surf Shop Owner Letty Nowak's Creative Key West, Florida Life

Artist Letty Nowak and friends enjoy a beautiful day in Key West, Florida.

“You never know who you’re going to meet,” says artist Letty Nowak of why she loves her home on the tiny island of Key West, Florida. From bumping into Florida celebrity Jimmy Buffett to being introduced to her art dealer in New York,Letty says the tight-knit community just shy of five miles long is a melting pot for...
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Artist Letty Nowak and friends enjoy a beautiful day in Key West, Florida.

“You never know who you’re going to meet,” says artist Letty Nowak of why she loves her home on the tiny island of Key West, Florida. From bumping into Florida celebrity Jimmy Buffett to being introduced to her art dealer in New York, Letty says the tight-knit community just shy of five miles long is a melting pot for international movers and shakers that seasonally return to the island’s crystal blue waters to relax.

The scene on the main thoroughfare, Duval Street in Key West. 
On the street by Fury Surf Shack. 

The colorful characters of Key West were an early inspiration in Letty’s painting career. Straight out of art school in Michigan and moving to Key West, she embarked on a series of paintings over the course of five years titled “Faces of Key West” that encompassed 100 different portraits of local people. Her next series in progress, “Faces of Surfing” adapts that same concept to surf community personalities. “My Dad owned surf shops in Michigan [where I grew up] so it is pretty special for me to bring that industry into my painting career,” says Letty.

Left, portrait of surfers Debbie Beacham and right, Maya Gabeira painted by Letty Nowak. 
Letty with her paintings. 

On top of her painting career and managing her own art gallery, The Lemonade Stand Gallery in Key West, Letty also co-owns three Fury Surf Shack stores and the recently opened lifestyle boutique called Key West Sunshine Club (where Seea is sold).

Seea caught up with Letty between her nonstop travel schedule (she has an art studio in La Jolla, Calif. and is frequently traveling for fun) to get the inside scoop on the hidden gems of Key West, her journey as an artist and bringing California designers to the Florida Keys.

One of the Fury Surf Shacks that Letty co-owns. 

Why do you love living in Key West?

Key West is its own little place. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Miami and it’s 90 miles from Cuba. People from all over the world — artists, business people, people who spend time between Key West and NYC — everyone lives in the same neighborhood together.

What is Fury Surf Shack in Key West and the new Key West Sunshine Club where Seea is sold?

The Fury Surf Shacks are three surf shops I co-own with Marius Venter in Key West, Florida. They have been open now for seven years. We stock the big core surf brands.

Key West Sunshine Club is a brand new boutique we just opened that is surf-inspired, but really select in brands that I have discovered through living in California. I had to introduce them to the Key West/South Florida market. I wanted them set apart and in their own space.

View from the outside of the Key West Sunshine Club at night.
Inside the Key West Sunshine Club. 

What is the women's surf scene like in Florida?

North of Miami, it is definitely prominent. I recently surfed with Frieda Zamba who was an amazing athlete. South of Miami and into the Keys, it is more of a SUP scene. It’s surrounded by reef, so no waves. When the water’s really still, its Caribbean blue. There’s lots of manatee, dolphin and wildlife.

Where do you usually surf?

I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by waves in San Diego when I'm there so you can normally find me anywhere between Grandview and Mission Beach.

What kind of support do you encounter from other women in the surf community?

I have recently started having great conversations with Coco Tihanyi who owns Surf Diva in La Jolla with her sister Izzy. It's been great to compare notes and ideas with her. Florencia Gomez of Greenpacha and I have tossed a lot of great ideas around about art, business, and the surf industry. Lisa Anderson just said yes to being painted. Lyndie Irons of Acacia has also been a subject of mine and an inspiration.

What were the keys to your success as a co-owner of Fury Surf Shack stores?

First, to have fun.  I also had to learn to share the reigns, not only with my business partner, Marius who is male, but also with my staff. I was open to try their new ideas and we were able to create successful shops. I also had to learn to keep a good balance of merchandise with everything from quantity, sizing, color palettes, and when to push the limits of style.

Marius’s parents had surf shops while he was growing up in South Africa and my parents had surf shops in Michigan so it is pretty cool to share some of our own now.

What special touches did you offer to the business as a woman? 

I have been able to make the interior of our spaces almost totally custom with a look that is held over into each of our shops.  Custom racks, tables, and counters are built along with found re-finished furniture. Most of the little bowls and baskets, which hold our jewelry and accessories, have been brought from my travels or made from my artist friends.  It is the personal touches that I think customers appreciate in our type of stores.  I learned this from my Dad and wish I could do it as good as he could.  We have really gone all out in our shops, as they are an extension of a lifestyle we love.

Letty in the original Malibu! 
Letty painting in the studio.

How did you get into painting?

I started painting because I knew I had a strong attachment to my art and my grandfather told me to go for it as I had nothing to lose coming out of university. It was great advice.

How did you find your voice in painting portraits?

We had to choose one style/subject for an entire semester at university. At the time, portraits seemed like the hardest thing to learn so I chose them to have help from my professor who, funnily enough, ended up being an abstract painter. I found my voice for portraits after the first one I finished. I have never looked back since that class. There was something about the challenge of taking something so personal and recognizable and then making have it's own life as a 2D painted object.

You’ve painted a lot of important people in the surf community for your “Faces of Surfing” series. How did you come to be able to paint these personalities?

It started in Tavarua, Fiji. My boyfriend took me there for my 30th birthday. There, I met Richard Woolcott [co-founder of Volcom] photographed him, painted him, and showed his painting in New York City, which was secretly the start to the Faces of Surfing. On my next trip to Tavarua, I met Bob Hurley [founder of Hurley]. I was telling him about my work and he offered me an exhibit at Hurley's headquarters. The community support has been really unbelievable.

What do you try to capture about a person's personality when painting a portrait?

There is not a lot of expression I am looking for — just pretty frontal and honest. If I do it right, their personality will come through as I paint them through my marks and colors, leaving lines soft or hard, with the light that is reflecting on them.

The Florida Keys are an easy place to try kite boarding. 
Or just enjoy the waterfront view. 

What attractions would you suggest to visitor coming to Key West?

[Outdoors there’s] diving, snorkeling, SUP, fishing. Take kiteboarding lessons. You’re just learning to kite board in waist deep water. Put on a mask and snorkel and check out the fish in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park forest.

Go to some art openings. The studios of Key West bring resident musicians and have gallery openings. It can really change your experience in Key West.

Get coffee at the Cuban Coffee Queen, which I painted a big mural on. For breakfast/lunch/dinner, Blue Heaven. You sit outside amongst roosters just running around. There’s a band and they have their own bakery on premises. It’s in the same area as Sunshine Club, one of the last old parts of Key West with families that have lived there forever. Seven Fish is a little restaurant only open for dinner that’s hard to get into because its super small but its in an old town neighborhood. Finding all the hidden gems off the beaten path is one of the cool parts about Key West.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. 

What kind of advice do you have for women who want to make a living as an artist?

"ABL," Always Be Learning. That is what I told myself from my first days out of college. Nurture your style, push your limits, and realize the possibilities are endless. Be confident and persistent. Work towards your goal.  If you believe in yourself, it will happen.


To read about more inspiring women surf shop owners, check out stories on:

Sawyer Land and Sea Supply in Santa Cruz, CA.

Wetsand Surf Shop in Ventura, CA.

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