Many locals know Jenifer and Leon Dermer from their journey here in the Keys to find their little niche. A niche filled with metal molded into colorful life-like creatures that also call the Keys their home. Their metal artwork is seen throughout the Keys and has been shipped worldwide.
It started on a boat, as every seaside love story should. Jenifer and Leon met on a cruise ship, and Leon went head-over-heels for her. “He came at me like a freight train. It was startling, yet powerful, and that one-track love for me never slowed down,” Jenifer reminisces. “There was nothing I could do but love him back.”
They began their lives together in Miami Beach, where Leon manufactured clothing. Yet they dreamed of making a life in the Keys, where Leon could fish and Jenifer could showcase her exotic birds.
“When I first met Leon, we would come to the Keys to get away from the noise of running a garment manufacturing plant in Hialeah. We would charter a boat and go fishing. I spent most of the day up top with my baby girl. We would read or make things and I enjoyed being outside. Leon and his son would catch fish and talk fishing. It seemed idyllic. It was.”
In 1994, their dream became a reality when they moved to Marathon. Captain Leon chartered his beautiful 47’ Rybovich fishing yacht, Happy Times, from the docks of Hawks Cay. Jenifer was honored by Hawks Cay Resort to have an educational rainforest. She produced a program featuring her parrots, who had learned to play basketball and do simple puzzles or sing and dance. It was a wonderful platform to teach people about parrots and how to properly care for them.
The message was always that parrots did not like or deserve a life where they must sit and wait in a cage for some interaction, as opposed to flying 100-150 miles in a day as they do in the wild. Parrots mate for life, starting at the age of 2, which is when most people “give up” the baby bird that they once loved because it starts to scream, bite and pull out its own feathers in lonely desperation.
Leon went back into manufacturing clothing, and it was back to Miami Beach for a while, but they returned to the Keys in 2000. They opened Happy Feathers gift shop and World Parrot Mission in the building next to what is now the Coco Plum Café.
World Parrot Mission helped homeless and helpless parrots and educated the public about the responsibility of owning a parrot. In 2002, they moved the shop and mission to the building at mm 99.1 in Key Largo, but for economic reasons, it became impossible to keep the mission going there.
So, instead, Jenifer and the birds have done programs for schools, the children’s shelter, and integrated the bird outreach into their business, which evolved into Captain’s Imports.
Captain’s Imports is an art gallery featuring ocean-themed metal art coated and designed for outdoor use. The art has become recognizable statement pieces in homes and resorts throughout the Keys. It comes in all sizes, including table décor, wall mounts, statues, fountains, and more.
Their metal artwork has also reached the remotest places of the world, from California to Spain to Japan and hundreds of places in between. “It’s been an amazing journey to meet such interesting people from all over the world. We are so truly lucky here in the Keys, to live in a place that is so remote, yet so cosmopolitan in many ways.”
The art pieces often originate from Jenifer’s own designs and are brought to life by a very talented Mexican artist that works solely with Captain’s Imports in Florida. He molds and paints the pieces, which Captain’s Imports then coats with an outdoor glaze that Leon specially designed. Jenifer sometimes adds her own creative touches to the art before coating them.
Running a business in the Keys always has its challenges, but Leon steadfastly remained. He diligently ran the gallery and made wonderful friends and customers. He didn’t want to quit. He loved his work and being outdoors surrounded by beautiful art.
Leon’s success was evident. He sold gorgeous giant bronze statues and fountains and fabulous high-quality metal art that reflects one’s love for the sea. After 34 years together and 20 years of running the gallery, Leon quietly passed away in the night. The beauty he created is now being run by Jenifer, his wife and partner in life and business. As you walk through the gates at Captain’s Imports, you will feel their love for the ocean, the earth, and all her inhabitants.
The recently planted butterfly garden delights kids and adults alike. In 2020, they released 168 Monarch Butterflies into the Upper Keys. In 2021, they released 287 to fly and live freely. Jenifer finds joy in watching their maiden flight as they test their wings on that very first day. She’s inspired by their beauty and their challenge in changing from a plant-dwelling caterpillar to a sky-dwelling butterfly.
“The butterflies and parrots are a direct reflection of my art, my heart and my soul. I want every single person that walks through these gates to have a positive, warm, fuzzy feeling. Guests can see the parrots on the weekend when I bring one with me to demonstrate the incredible relationship I have with them and show off how smart they are.”
For a while, Jenifer didn’t think she could make it without Leon, but there have been moments where his presence is almost tangible. It began with a cardinal appearing in her yard just days after his passing. Jenifer had joked in the past that she’d want him to return to life as a cardinal, and that cardinal still greets her every morning.
She has also met many wonderful people who knew Leon and came in to say hello to him. It is a bittersweet moment when she must tell someone he has passed on while making a friend that she knows cared enough to come back and visit.
Jenifer has even heard Leon’s voice as he directed her to find her diamond that fell from her wedding ring in the gallery’s garden just months after he passed. She was devastated by the loss, as if she was losing Leon all over again, but one day she heard a still, small voice tell her to look under her left foot. There, dirt-covered and thoroughly blending in with the gravel, was her diamond.
Since then, Jenifer has been able to breathe again and is assured that she will be reunited with Leon. “I know he will be there with his hand out to take mine when it’s my turn to cross that divide. It’s a good feeling.”
Jenifer is staying involved with the community and recently donated a beautiful art piece to the Nick Sheahan Dolphin Rodeo, which benefits local students. She looks forward to meeting and reconnecting with smiling faces, and hopes you’ll come visit her and her birds at Captain’s Imports at 99150 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo, FL 33037 or visit their website at captainsimports.com
– Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor, who loves to travel with her family.