By Newlin Tillotson
Deer Isle, ME- A quirky jelly farm in the heart of Deer Isle, Maine is also home to a variety of sculptures created from found objects from the local area that include a giant flamingo, a Western town and Knights from the Round Table. Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies’ founders Peter and Anne Beerits began the business 25 years ago and now produce about 300 to 350 jars of jelly and jam a day. Through the years, Peter has created an interactive museum of sculptures that are scattered throughout his land and the woods adjacent to the jelly store. Artscope’s Newlin Tillotson caught up with Peter to learn about his inspiration and his next big project.
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AS AN ARTIST AND WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO DEER ISLE?
I went to the Boston Museum School (Museum of Fine School of Fine Arts, Boston), which was a great place for me. I really loved it, and then I went to a big state school for graduate school, Long Beach State in California, because it was famous for having a big sculpture department. I did a lot of bronze sculpting there, but nobody taught the sculpture I do now… Others were doing it, but it hadn’t yet reached the educational system.
My parents came up to Deer Isle from the Philadelphia area during the summer all my life. They had friends that were up here on an island in Penobscot Bay, so we would stay there each summer. It was very idyllic and had a huge influence on me. When I got out of school, there weren’t many jobs for what I wanted to do. I was qualified to teach sculpture at the university level, but they only had one opening nationwide that year. I didn’t even bother trying to get it. I came back east and started the jelly business, Nervous Nellie’s, and that was my practical way to make a living, which is really a crazy way to make a living, but it worked out for me.
WHAT ABOUT FOUND OBJECTS INTEREST YOU AND WHERE DO YOU FIND THE MATERIALS FOR YOUR SCULPTURES?
Even when I was at the Museum School, I would find stuff in the trash or on the curb and make sculptures out of it, so from the beginning I was doing that and I guess I just love junk. I love the artifact nature of junk, the archeological aspect of it, and the fact that it is something old that was once useful. Something about all that really drew me. Maybe even the energy in the use the object had — I wanted to save that by incorporating it into things. Deer Isle is an absolute gold mine because nobody around here ever throws anything away… I don’t think there was even a dump here until the ‘60s. Things that were thrown out generations ago in other places are still found around here. And people now just bring me things, knowing the work I do.
WHEN COLLECTING OBJECTS, DO YOU SEE AN OBJECT AND THINK, “THAT WOULD WORK GREAT FOR AN EYE, THE BEAK OF A BIRD, ETC.” OR, DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO MAKE AND GATHER OBJECTS THAT FIT?
Originally I would see an object and think, “Oh, this has got to be something,” but I have so much stuff now that I have an inventory. Just yesterday I was working on a pelican for a woman and I went into the woods looking for objects I already have that would work for a beak.
WHERE DOES THE INSPIRATION COME FROM FOR THE DIFFERENT BUILDINGS?
The western town, that’s something I grew up with. The western myth was very, very big in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in addition, my mother had been a cowgirl. I grew up with that stuff and it was very magical to me. King Arthur, and his knights as well, were kind of the last of the unregulated innocence and virtue before civilization came in and the last of the old magic before the new structure came in. Those sorts of themes that are so big in the King Arthur story are also true to the Wild West. I love the myths maybe even more than events from real life.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT BIG PROJECT?
Most of the big stuff is self-generated and I’m working on developing the villages some more. I’ve been adding about a building a year to the western town and I’m kind of running out of space. For maybe 20 years I’ve gotten a lot of stuff from an old saw mill — first wood for the sculptures and then for the buildings. It’s a historic place that’s been going for five generations but they are finally going to close. I just found that out and I got the guy to promise me to mill the wood for one more building, so I’m going to build a church in the woods. I want to try to do more sculptures for the woods because that’s kind of where the whole thing started.
WHERE DOES THE NAME “NERVOUS NELLIE’S JAMS & JELLIES” COME FROM?
Nervous Nellie’s seemed like the name a jelly place would have in a comic book to me. I was always into comic books. I thought that would be a funny name because it rhymed. And the business advice I got from everyone was, “Oh, you’ve got to lose that name, it’s too crazy and controversial, I should have a name that sounds like I’ve been in business for years,” but luckily I didn’t follow that advice.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG ARTISTS?
In my experience and observation, the only way to make it in the arts is to find a path that nobody’s tried before and that is, by definition, something you’re not going to know when you get out of art school. You have to sort of feel your way into it and be really stubborn because people will try to deflect you into other things with your best interests at heart after they see you beating your head against the wall for something that will never work. But sometimes, if you beat your head against the wall long enough, it does work and you break your way through the wall and find a space… That is what happened to me.
(Peter Beerits’ sculptures are on display at Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, 589 Sunshine Rd, Deer Isle, Maine, which is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. May through Christmas. For more information visit http://www.nervousnellies.com.)