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Sarasota artist and arts advocate Peppi Elona dies at 86

Elona was one of 13 founding members of the contemporary Sarasota Art Museum.

Peppi Elona
Peppi Elona
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"You only live once" is the expression people often use when making a leap of faith, but that wasn't the case for Peppi Elona: She had two lives.

The first life started on July 18, 1936, in Paterson, New Jersey, when Isabel Gruber gave birth to Elona "Peppi" Gruber, daughter of Jack Gruber and the sister of Joan. 

The second life ended on May 29, when the Sarasota artist and philanthropist died at her home in Siesta Key.

In her first life, Elona was married to International Business Machines executive Edward Henig for 17 years. They had four children and lived in several places back when IBM was shorthand for "I've Been Moved." 

In her second life, Elona was known as Peppi Elona. She lived in Sarasota for 23 years and was an artist who helped raise the city's cultural profile.

"Peppi was a deeply genuine and honest person," said Wendy Surkis, Elona's wife. "She was true to herself and how she lived and experienced life. It was refreshing to be in Peppi's presence."

Peppi Elona and Wendy Surkis at the 2014 Greenfield Prize Award Dinner
File photo

Although life in Sarasota was a clear line of demarcation between Elona's two lives, there were bridges connecting them — art and Surkis. 

Even while she was raising kids and being moved around by IBM, Elona found time to pursue her arts education. She earned a bachelor's degree from Rutgers, a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Arts from Montclair State in New Jersey. 

She met Surkis at the University of Louisville in 1973. During their 47-year relationship, Surkis was first Elona's classmate, then her confidante and finally her companion. 

In 2003, Elona and Surkis were two of 13 founding members of the Sarasota Art Museum, where Surkis became founding president.

Elona's contributions to the museum's birth included writing marketing materials and hosting artists and donors in her home. Along with Surkis and the other founding members, she helped transform the historic Sarasota High School building into a contemporary art museum. That happened in 2004, through a partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design. 

"Wendy was the leader of the effort from the beginning when we started the journey to convert the historic Sarasota High School into a contemporary art museum. Peppi was always there with Wendy, but more behind the scenes," said Ringling College President Larry Thompson.

Thompson recalled how early in the development process, before any money had been raised for the project, Elona came up with the idea of converting one of the bathrooms on the first floor of the high school into an art installation. The Artful Restroom became a showcase to demonstrate the creativity of the new museum to potential donors, he said.

Elona also found time to create her own art. The venues that showcased her artwork included Art Center Sarasota, Towles Court Gallery and the Selby Gallery at Ringling College, to name a few local arts institutions. Outside of Sarasota, the Newark Art Museum, the Johnson & Johnson Art Gallery at the health care giant's New Jersey headquarters and art galleries in New York exhibited Elona's art. 

In an artist's statement on her website,, Elona wrote, "As long as I can remember — as far back as my childhood — I have been fascinated by materials, touching them, thinking about them, wondering about their origins and ultimately reimagining them."

Among the materials that found their way into Elona's colorful art were fabric, sticks, found objects, yarn, feathers, paper, string and recyclables.

Despite her devotion to the arts, Elona's first love was her family. She remained friends with Henig after they divorced and helped orchestrate get-togethers for her blended family with Surkis. 

"Peppi was the family's treasured gift," said Surkis. "Peppi and Wendy — the Grammas — journeyed with each grandchild to places around the world."

Elona was buried in Totowa, New Jersey, next to her parents. Surkis asked those who want to honor Elona's memory make a donation to the Sarasota Art Museum.

This article has been updated.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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