Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies offers 15 kinds of jarred delights at its far-flung retail shop along winding Sunshine Road. But to visitors, it’s also a magical place where a quaint general store is a stone’s throw away from King Arthur’s Castle and a Mississippi juke joint stands harmoniously beside a Wild West saloon.
Welcome to the world of Peter Beerits. The Deer Isle sculptor and jelly maker lives by the idea that people should follow their dreams, but be ready to adapt. When he’s not overseeing production of red raspberry jam, wild Maine blueberry preserves, strawberry rhubarb conserve and other jams and jellies, Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies’ co-founder is expanding his fanciful, rambling sculpture park where visitors meet life-size characters inhabiting starkly different places resembling movie sets.
Beerits will give free public tours of “Nellieville” on some Sundays starting at 1 p.m. The remaining tour dates are Aug. 14, Sept. 4 and Sept. 25. Donations are welcome.
Roaming through Nellieville, the sculptor’s latest installation is a garage/barbershop created, like all his pieces, from castoff material salvaged from the local transfer station, roadsides and other places. Jesus’s tomb is in the works, but so far only consists of three beams salvaged from one of the island’s oldest homes.
“Peter’s work comes from a deep place inside,” said Anne Beerits, his wife and business manager.
Raised a Quaker, Peter defied his father’s wishes by studying art. Graduating from California State University at Long Beach with Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and little job opportunity, the artist moved to Deer Isle, where he opened Nervous Nellie’s in 1984. Today, the couple sell more than 50,000 jars of jams and jellies annually. They are content with their small-batch business of eight staffers who process 6 to 7 tons of fruit yearly just for the popular wild Maine blueberry preserves.
Over the years, though, Peter’s creative rerouting of the local waste stream — putting to use scrap metal and other refuse — and ongoing creation of Nellieville has attracted its own following.
Some of the installations spring from his childhood playing with cowboy toys and later following the civil rights movement. King Arthur’s castle is one exception, stemming from studies in Jungian psychology.
On a recent tour, Peter said his bluesy juke joint remains the most popular installation in Nellieville. It was inspired by a trip to the South and speaks to the importance of civil rights. As a white man, Peter wondered whether he should portray the movement, but a black Mississippi family eased his fears, leaving a message that read, “God preserve your art and our culture.”
The artist believes his one-room church might just rival the juke joint. In the woods, visitors have come to tears after praying there. One said she considered it sacred.
Peter does sculpt commissioned pieces. Many are replicas of old characters. He’s made many guitarists in the likeness of a juke joint jammer. Individual works have sold for $350 to $10,000.
The discards Peter retrieves from dumps and other places are in flux. For instance, plastic is overwhelming what little scrap metal is free for the taking. But that doesn’t worry the sculptor.
“Artists make art out of what captivated them as children,” he said. “I’ve been able to collect the stuff that was beautiful to me, but for others, Walmart plastic chairs will be beautiful, and they can make sculptures out of it.”