In Conversation with Sculptor Peter Beerits.
Peter Beerits is a sculptor who, with his wife Anne, owns Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies on Deer Isle, Maine. Deer Isle is located in Penobscot Bay and is the second largest of Maine’s coastal islands.
Tucked away on a bend along Sunshine Road in the hamlet of Mountainville, the Beerits enterprise is hard to categorize. The sprawling property encompasses a cottage industry that is actually in a cottage, a quirky living museum of island life and culture, a colorful shop of handmade goods and a tea room with homemade goodies and a folk art sculpture garden that feels magical, hilarious and poignant all at once.
A folk art aficionado, I was enchanted by Peter’s sculptures, which are spread out across acres and span installations that include a Western saloon, Mississippi juke joint, Yankee local store and a Medieval castle. Each installation is populated by figures made of cast-off materials ranging from pieces of a pickup truck to a bed frame to a bilge pump. These characters each spin a yarn and I was intrigued to hear Peter’s.
I think you’ll find his story as enchanting as I did. Peter’s account of his journey touches on many elements universal to us all: being true to ourselves, transforming the past, finding our place in the world, being heard, trusting Life to unfold as it is meant to, and holding sacred the ideals that matter to us.
Life on Deer Isle, Maine
Meg: Tell me a little bit about your affiliation with Deer Isle.
Peter: I came to Deer Isle as a child. I would go to an island out in Penobscot Bay that had a log cabin and a wood stove and kerosene lights, and so forth. That was a very, very idyllic vision for me that has really stayed paramount in my mind all these years.
Meg: I understand that you’re originally from the Philadelphia area?
Peter: That is right. I’m from the Main Line.
Meg: And you come from a Quaker background?
Peter: My father was a Quaker all his life, and he was chairman of the American Friends Service Committee during the Vietnam War, which was a very exciting and stressful time to be chair of it.
Meg: Is the Quaker philosophy relevant to you, or did it influence you?
Peter: I guess the way that Quakerism was most a factor in who I am is that it was a religion that, basically, you could do whatever you wanted with. Once I graduated from Sunday school when I was 12, I could do whatever I wanted, so I just stopped attending church and never have since. But I really do respect the fact that they let me do that, and nobody tried to make it do otherwise. I guess that was a primary influence that Quakerism exerted on me.
Meg: I imagine that’s important to the notion that you have independence and choice.
Peter: Yeah. When I went to art school as an undergraduate, I went to the Boston Museum School. This was 1970, and it was just assumed and expected that I would go to college. Everybody did, and nobody thought about the fact that you might not go to college after high school, as they now do. But I was determined that I would go to a school where I could do whatever I wanted, and the Museum School filled the bill. There were no required courses. It was all pass/fail. They didn’t have a dormitory. I got to live in my own apartment and lived in Boston. So these were acceptable conditions for me to go to school. It turned out to be a fabulous school for me. I just couldn’t ask for a better school. It was perfect for me. A lot of people get lost there in the free-form environment, but it was exactly what I needed.
Meg: I had a similar experience in college. I went to a very tiny college in New Hampshire, and there was probably more structure than what you had, but it did really foster a kind of an individualistic style. A lot of entrepreneurs actually came out of that school. Is there anything you can look back on as far as why it worked for you and maybe not for others, what it brought out in you?
Peter: What the Museum School instilled in me is the idea, ‘Your ideas are important, and it’s the only thing you’ve got, and you should just go with them.’ They did have good courses there, which I actually took. I would not have taken them if they were required, but because I had the option, because it was voluntary, I took some very exacting ones, like anatomical illustration, that was very well-taught.
The Museum School had been a Beaux Arts school, very traditional, until a few years earlier, before I went there. In the late ‘60s they realized that wasn’t going to cut it anymore so they hired somebody to turn the whole place upside down. But they still had some of the old Beaux Arts teachers, and they had very good drawing instruction. Studying sculpture in art school, in those days, was a matter of doing portraits out of clay and casting them in plaster. So I learned to do that, which, although I would never do it now, I think it was a useful background. But again, the important thing for me is that taking all these courses was voluntary.
Meg: I identify with that concept. I don’t like to feel backed into a corner or like I don’t have choices. Did you ever get any push back from any quarter as far as your desire to have that freedom and to be able to follow your bliss? Did you ever run into any resistance?
The Path to Bliss
Peter: Following my bliss came at a cost which was really quite severe, all the more so for being largely self-imposed. All the time I did this, I was going against the grain of the social ethos, what I was raised to do, which was to be a doctor, or a scientist, or this, or that. My father actually wanted me to be a college professor in the humanities, and he tried to talk me out of going to art school as being too narrow a scope. And indeed, when the time came when my son wanted to go to art school, I very briefly had that conversation with him, until I realized how ludicrous it was.
But I have had a sense of, what would it be? On a deepest level it may be guilt, a feeling of just not measuring up, and I haven’t amounted to much in life, because I’m not famous, and I’m not recognized, and so forth. It partly has to do with the trajectory of my art. I’m sure it’s no accident that I wound up doing art in Deer Isle, because I can do it without any reference whatsoever to what’s going on in the art world as a whole. If I were an artist in New York or Los Angeles, I would constantly be evaluating what I was doing against what other people were doing, and against what was popular, and what was thought to be trendy or successful, or even an important statement, and feel marginalized and trivial. Being in Deer Isle, I can just do it.
For years, I would look at the New York Times arts section and all these people whose work sells for fabulous amounts of money and who are celebrities, and I would get angry. I think I’ve kind of gotten over that. One of the things that has helped me is that a very large number of people come here and tell me how wonderful my work is. They’re not art critics, and they’re not gallery owners, but they’re very sincere about it. At first, I didn’t know what to do with this information. I wanted to run and hide. But then I realized it’s important. These people, it’s very heartfelt, what they say, and I have to honor it and listen to them. But it has given me a bedrock sense that somewhere, in some universe, there’s a validity to my work and I don’t have to worry so much about the arts section of the New York Times.
Meg: Wow! It is hard when you’re creative, and you’re artistic, and you’re sensitive. You put things out into the world, and you feel that they aren’t heard. One of the things I’m really trying to pay attention to is finding ‘my people.’ It sounds like that’s kind of what you’re talking about. People began finding you, and letting you know that you’re touching them, and you’re able to listen to it and receive it. That can be an important part of being happy, I think. How did Nervous Nellie’s get started?
Peter: To go back to the beginning, when my parents retired, they got a house in Deer Isle. I went to art school at about that time, and I got out of graduate school with a degree that entitled me to teach sculpture at the university level. The year that I got out, there was one opening nationwide. It was in Lubbock, Texas, and it was a one-year replacement for someone on sabbatical, and I believe it paid $7,000. I wouldn’t have gotten it, anyway, because everybody else would try to get it. So for that reason, and because of a lack of any practical sort of judgment, I came to Deer Isle to start a jelly business in the mid-1980s, in the midst of a big specialty foods bloom. A lot of companies, even in Maine, were starting specialty foods production at that time.
It worked, after a fashion. It was a little bit successful at first. It kind of fell flat. It went broke. But I just persevered with it. I didn’t know that if a business doesn’t work, you can quit. So I just kept on working, and eventually it turned around.
Originally, I thought the idea was to do international fancy food shows and get my stuff in big stores in New York, which I did do. So I did the National Association for the Specialty Foods Trade shows in Javits in New York and Moscone in San Francisco. I was interested in landing the big accounts: Dean and Deluca in New York and Macy’s, and so forth. I don’t know, somehow I got the picture that that was how you made a successful business. I don’t know where I got it from, but I think it was widely assumed. But it isn’t anything that a business can survive on. What the business could survive on, as it turned out, was retail purchases.
We did have a production facility in Deer Isle, Maine, which was totally impractical from a logistical point of view. But on the other hand, I thought Deer Isle would have cachet and make the product appealing, and it was also where I wanted to live. So what happened over the years is that, while we were making jams and jellies to go to Dean and Deluca and wholesaling our product to stores, people would come and want to look at the kitchen and want to taste the jam, and so forth. And we didn’t know what to do with them—they were annoying, and they were in the way, and they were under foot.
So I built a deck outside and hired a girl to put out samples and serve coffee, and I figured that would be enough. It turned out that the visitors came mostly in inclement weather because if it was nice, they would be sailing or something like that. So then I had to build a building, and it had a little café and a little shop in it. The number of visitors kept increasing, and they overwhelmed the little building so that nobody sat down in the café, because there was no room, except to buy things. So I built a larger building that was a dedicated café, and more and more people came. I started to stick sculptures outside, and eventually to make them and place them around in the woods and over several acres, to ever-increasing numbers of people. Over the course of time, the retail sales got greater, and I began to get rid of the troublesome accounts and troublesome distributors that never paid me and were just too much work and too hard to deliver the stuff to.
After many years where I made all the jam and worked all the time, I was able to get to a position where I could hire a cook, and then I could start making sculptures again. At this point, more and more people were coming to Nervous Nellie’s, and they liked the sculptures, so I built more and more of them. Eventually, I realized that I could make what used to be called installations when I was in art school, which is what I always wanted to do. But I could never do it, because you can’t do installations unless you’re in charge of everything. Nobody else really wants you to do it, unless you’re very, very famous, in which case they will accommodate you. So my work here has increasingly gone to installations, and I have a number of buildings that you can go inside and do things.
Meg: Was there any sense of liberation in giving up trying to put the square peg in the round hole, so to speak?
Peter: There wasn’t any sense of liberation or an awareness of a shift for quite a while. I was almost on my own at this point, because the business was broke. I could hire high school kids to help out with the visitors. I was working all the time. I was completely frazzled. I lack the skills that are required to run a business, so I never returned phone calls and stuff. I had to make all the jam and deliver it, which was pretty much full time. So it was more in an atmosphere of being totally overloaded, and some things don’t get done.
And what didn’t get done was getting jam to the troublesome distributors and the stores that were too far away. It wasn’t for a while until I really realized what was happening. I used to do big shows and festivals, I would go somewhere with a whole lot of jam and cases and cases of Ritz Crackers. At the same time, I would have the shop going here, with a high school kid running it. I would run out of things at a big show in Southern Maine, and I’d have to come back here and get jam, and find out that the high school kid had sold more jam here at this location than I had at the show, whereas I was going through a case of Ritz Crackers a day with people sampling.
So it began to become apparent to me what was happening. It was a matter of yielding to a trend, but it was a very beneficent trend. People started to buy my art at this point. I wouldn’t have time to deliver it, so I would accumulate a truckload of sculptures for different destinations, and then deliver them in the fall. I did that for quite a few years until, for some reason, that business changed after 9/11. Sculpture sales only briefly went down, but after that, there were a lot of people here wanting to buy sculptures. It may well be that a lot of people moved to Maine after 9/11. But my market for sculpture became much more within the state than across the eastern seaboard.
Meg: I like the fact that you said that the trend was beneficent. I’m curious if you can tell me if you found it so at the time, or if it was only in hindsight that you saw that the path had been narrowing and sending you in a different direction, or whether as it was occurring you were taking note and seeing it as beneficent?
Peter: I think it was more in hindsight that I saw it as beneficent. Mainly, I was really overloaded, and I found it stressful. I’m extremely introverted, so the idea that I would make jam in isolation, and then deliver a large amount of it to a store, and then let them do the retailing seemed like an appealing model at the time, whereas I had crowds of people coming and wanted to talk to me. It was quite an adjustment. But over time, I think the first thing I realized was that was that this trend was creating a demand for my art which delivering stuff to Macy’s would never do.
Meg: It’s amazing that all of this occurring was the catalyst that really returned you to your art.
From Jam… to Art.
Peter: That’s right. It’s almost as if the jelly business was a Trojan horse for the art inside, and once it got in the right place, the art could break out and invade the landscape.
Meg: I love that. That probably is a good segue to talk about your art. Can you describe the nature of your medium and the notion of the material being salvaged and having a prior life?
Peter: I first became attracted to junk as a medium when I was at the Museum School. Living in Boston, I would see interesting things in the trash on the sidewalk, and pick them up and try to incorporate them in sculptures. This is something that artists that were out in the world were just beginning to do, but it wasn’t being taught in art schools. It was something I was vaguely aware that it was happening, and I was interested in the junk. It spoke to me.
I went to graduate school in Los Angeles, and I found a lot of industrial junk, because Los Angeles had been a manufacturing city, and that was reaching its close at that point, around 1980. So there was a lot of this stuff kicking around. Now there’s nothing of that left. So I would buy junk at salvage yards in Los Angeles and make sculptures out of them.
But the best junk was in Deer Isle. My parents bought a summer place here in 1972, and like every older house on the island, it had a dump behind the house where they had thrown all the trash over the years. The biodegradable trash had disappeared, but the metal was left. I found a bilge pump there, because like everybody else around here, the former owner of the house was a lobsterman. So he threw out a bilge pump, which fascinated me. It looked like a diving bell—the helmet that a diver wore in the old, old days. So I took it back to the Museum School, and I found a mold form for making sand casts with cast iron—a big mahogany thing—and used that for a body, and that was my first found object sculpture, which is actually sitting right beside us. It eventually ended up in the home of a friend of mine in Deer Isle and was there for many years. The chair broke, owing to the fact that the bilge pump probably weighs a hundred pounds, so I took it back to restore it. It’s sitting in my shop waiting to be restored.
That was really what I was always interested in making sculptures of, was junk. I was never–or very briefly maybe, in the very beginning– interested in making sculptures of anything else. I’ve come to really treasure the junk in Deer Isle because I have seen over decades, over really half a lifetime, how things move through the waste stream. Initially, there was a great deal of wonderful stuff here that had not been used for perhaps half a century, but people held on to it because this is an island. Nobody threw anything out, and if they did, they threw it out behind the house. The municipal dump in the town probably appeared in the ‘60s, so there was no other alternative before that.
So a lot of stuff would move through the dump, and I loved it, and I would bring it back here and put it in the woods and save it. That stuff is all gone, now. None of it is any longer appearing because the era is gone, and instead of having a metal pile of great size that you can climb around and pick things out at the Deer Isle dump, it has a plastic pile which is so large that, like a cancer, it is growing and overtaking the whole dump, and the town will never, ever be able to afford to dispose of it.
The world has changed, and I have been able to harvest a little bit of the old world before it disappeared from view. This junk is not destroyed, but it’s transformed, and what I believe it has mostly been transformed into is rebar. The scrap iron all went to China, and they made it into rebar, and they build apartment buildings out of it, and that’s where it is now. But I’ve collected what I can from it.
Meg: Why do you think the junk calls to you? I personally can spend a lot of time in the past. I can romanticize the past in a lot of ways. I love decaying buildings. I do a lot of photography of buildings that are being overtaken by nature. Is there any of that going on? Is there anything about the materials that speaks to you on kind of an emotional or a spiritual level?
Peter: Being an artist, I’m very interested in symbols and in mythology, and there’s a certain point at which history turns into myth. That’s something that is very apparent in this country because it’s pretty recent, really. I mean the Wild West is not all that long ago, which has surely turned into myth. And even more recent things—the Second World War, the Civil Rights Era, the farm economy, the ‘60s, all these things have become myth. And the myth has more power, and in some ways, more validity than what actually happened. In a way, it’s more real than what actually happened, because it’s what lay behind and beneath what actually happened. So that’s a factor in all this old junk. I don’t know much about this, and I haven’t thought much about it, but I believe that objects and buildings are imprinted by the lives that took place in and around them, and when you see or handle a piece of junk, or when you walk in an old building or look at a façade, I think if your feelers are out, you can receive some of this, and I think that this speaks to me. It may be that I’m able to repackage this in a way that it speaks to a wider group of people who are here for less, which is what’s going on for the visitors here.
Meg: You referred to the Wild West, and one of your installations here deals with that. Can you talk about your fascination with that, and what about that time period speaks to you?
Peter: There are a couple of threads there, which I guess are quite intimately connected. For one thing, when I was a child, the Wild West was being heavily promoted. TV had just been invented and come of age as a medium, so they did a lot of Wild West stuff, Wild West shows and so forth on that, which produced comic books and toys as a spin off. The TV I was never really exposed to much, but the comic books I had and the toys I had.
One of the toys I had was a set of cowboys and Indians that had a tin town. It had both sides of Main Street lithographed on tin with the insides and the outsides of the buildings. I was really haunted by that, and I would look at those buildings from the outside and look at them from the inside and think about what life would be like in that world, and inside those buildings, as if it were a movie, really.
At the same time, my mother would tell us stories of when she was a cowboy out West, because although she was an easterner during World War II, the men folk out West all went off to war. They needed somebody to round up the cattle, so they were willing to let a woman do it, and so she had that job for a little while. It was a very influential thing for her and produced many memories, which she told us about when we were growing up.
So there was a kind of a double sense of magic about the Old West, and about the mythological West, and about the vanishing West, and about how the West was repackaged as a myth, that really never let me go. When the house I grew up in on the Main Line was being sold, it was all full of many wonderful things and antiques that had accumulated there over the decades, but the thing that I grabbed from the house, as I was heading from Maine out to Long Beach, California to go to graduate school, was the comic books and the little tin town, and I still have those.
The tin town has served as a model for the Western town I’m building here. It has the Silver Dollar Saloon, it has a jail, it has a lawyer. So it has been kind of my muse, I guess, for the Western town that I’m building.
Meg: How did your mother happen to go from the Philadelphia area out West and become a cowboy?
Peter: I’m sure her parents were horrified, but how she found that ranch, I don’t know. I’ve honestly never even thought of it. I’ve just taken it as a given. I don’t know how she got out there. It was in Montana. I went out to look for it, but the ranch is gone. The ranch failed, and they moved all the buildings away, as is the fashion there. She did watercolor paintings, which I have on the second floor of my saloon. So I have images of the ranch from her watercolor paintings. The main cabin was built by Buffalo Bill Cody for his daughter, but that got moved to some other part of the state of Montana.
Meg: If we use the Wild West installation as kind of a template, can you walk me through the process of your work from the idea to its present state?
Peter: I’ll take a little detour to describe the beginning of the process.
At one time Deer Isle had many little independent, very odd, funky little stores in every little community. One by one they all closed. The last remaining one was in Sunset. That was the Neville Hardy Store, and I used to go there and buy the Sunday paper. It was a place that, if you were from away, you probably wouldn’t have gone inside. It looked kind of dirty and maybe threatening, and you wouldn’t know. At least it would be mysterious what would be in there, so you’d go to a supermarket, instead.
At one point Neville posted signs that he was going to close the store. Neville had been, and still is, the first selectman of Deer Isle. He’s held that position for more than 40 years, so he really runs the town—that’s like being the mayor—and a lot of the town business got settled in that store, more than in the town hall. So when Neville said that he was going to close the store, I said, “It belongs in a museum,” and he laughed at me. Then I asked him, “What are you going to do with this building?” He said, “Well, we’ll knock it down and throw it on the burn pile at the dump.” So I worked up my courage over the next week, and that next Sunday I asked him if I could take a piece of the façade and make a sculpture out of it. So he agreed that I could.
Meg: When you say that you worked up your courage, why was that necessary?
Peter: Neville’s a very imposing man. He’s a great big, gruff man, very powerful on the island, and I was always afraid of him. I think a lot of people are. And what I wanted to do was something that I would regard as really crazy and maybe very suspicious to him. But he did agree. He wanted to ask his wife about it, but he agreed to it.
As I busied myself to remove the façade after taking off the drywall inside, I realized that that part of the store was a little building all its own and that the store was cobbled together out of four separate buildings. So I got it in my head to move this little building, which was only perhaps 10 by 14 feet. It used to be somebody’s house. People used to live in houses that small. In fact, it used to be near here, and then it was moved to Stonington, and then moved to Sunset, and then back here to Mountainville again. The way you’re supposed to move a building like that is to jack it up, put it up on blocks, and back a trailer under it. But I couldn’t do that because of the juxtaposition of the truck body, so I had to put slings under it and pick it up with a crane.
I set up Neville’s store with props and four characters, but nobody much noticed it. Then I went to Mississippi and I loved the juke joints there, in the Delta. So I came back and built a sculpture of a juke joint. I didn’t know how visitors would respond to such a thing, on the coast of Maine, but they loved it. And they went into Hardy’s Store, too. So on the strength of that response, I built the Silver Dollar Saloon.
Meg: One of features of the Saloon as well as the other installations that I find so fascinating is the documentation and interpretation you offer, almost like a museum exhibit.
Peter: When it came time to build the saloon, I started doing research on saloons, and Wild Bill Hickok was an important character. I become fascinated with the stories and side stories of these things, and then incorporated them in the installation. I want to share it with the visitors who may not be aware of these things.
Another example of that is when I went to Mississippi and visited the juke joints that I love so much. I realized that there was no way to understand what was going on in Mississippi, and what was going on with the music, without understanding the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement is something that I remember well. It was hauntingly powerful for me when I was a child growing up, so I’ve got all these images implanted in my mind. But most of the people that come to Nervous Nellie’s weren’t even born then, so they have no idea. For that reason, I wrote up a little piece about it, and I’ve got books about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King there for people to look at in the juke joint, so maybe they can begin to figure out some of the context of it.
Meg: Another example of the interactive nature of the installations is in the store. In that installation, you have three figures engaged in what could be a scene from daily life and above the chair there’s a sign that says something like, “Do you have a sense that there are conversations going on here? Have a seat and listen.” I love that invitation. You’re not just creating sculpture for people to look at. It is participatory. Can you describe the distinction between sculptures that one is supposed to just simply admire versus what you seem to hope to accomplish?
Peter: With my sculptures, I’m inviting someone to go into a world and explore it. I guess I hadn’t thought of it until now, but of all the artistic media, sculpture is the least conducive to that. The sculptures of the 20th century that I studied in art school and grew up with are typically monumental abstract sculptures that don’t invite me into a world. Paintings will do that, especially older paintings.
But what I’m really interested in is movies, I guess. To the extent that I can, I’m trying to make a frozen movie that you can walk inside of. They have wonderful western sets in movies now–Cowboys and Aliens come to mind. They build a little town just for the purpose of this comic farce of a movie, and you never get a chance to look at the western town. The action is very rapid, and I would strain to look at all the details and wish I could walk around in that town, but I’d never get a chance because the plot unfolded much too fast for that. It may well be that if you had the time to look at it, you’d see a lot of things that you weren’t supposed to see, that they did a sketchy town that was just good enough. But I wanted to have a movie set that you could walk around in, and that’s perhaps what the installations are.
Meg: What do you think engages that interaction? Are there specific elements of an installation that you can point to that are what engage people and make them feel like it is a conversation?
Peter: Boy, that’s one I really don’t know if I can answer. I mean it’s magic, kind of, and I don’t know how I do it or which parts of what I do are successful and which aren’t. It’s serendipity, it’s good luck, it’s even a case that when I do the artwork, sometimes something along comes for the ride, and I don’t know what it is that comes for the ride, but it’s there, and the people that come here can see it. But it isn’t something I did, so I don’t really know. I was just sort of a medium for that. It’s kind of like entertainment. What makes a great performance? An entertainer might be hard put to say what made a great performance, but they know when it happens. And I can certainly see when my sculptures reach people, but what it is that does it, I really don’t know.
Meg: I think one of the things that does it for me are the details. I know as a writer I provide a lot of detail about the things I notice. Some people that really resonate with, and other people, in today’s day and age, want only 140 characters. For example, upstairs in the saloon there’s a Raggedy Ann doll on the bed and that just spoke volumes to me–I have my Raggedy Ann doll from when I was a little girl. You work on a large scale, you’re creating buildings, but at the same time, your work has a lot of detail.
Peter: I’m very aware of the details when I produce the buildings, and I often can’t or don’t have time to do all the details I want. To some extent, it drives me crazy. I think the work is deficient, and it’s not finished, and it even bothers me to have people look at it and tell me that it’s good when I don’t feel like it’s finished. But that’s the way life is, so I’ve learned to live with it.
Meg: I know that your wife Anne is your partner in Nevous Nelllie’s–can you speak to how the two of you work together?
Peter: Anne is the person who makes my life work, which it definitely didn’t without her. I don’t know how to operate a computer. I don’t know how to run a business. I find it very difficult to talk on the phone, so I don’t return phone calls. There are a lot of things like this that I’m really, really, seriously no good at, that she can do. That has provided a financial underpinning and the audience. I mean the audience wouldn’t come if the business was totally dysfunctional, but the business is very functional, so they come here and look at the art. Anne provides the structure for the whole thing, which art desperately needs. I mean I’ve got the crazy dreams, and the myths, and the visions, but without structure, they’re nothing, they’re unrealized. I can’t provide that structure very well, but she can.
Meg: I read that you consider Nervous Nellie’s being an unfolding, a process that is now maturing. I resist process. I like instantaneous results, but obviously that’s not the way life works. Could you talk about your feeling that your process is now maturing?
Peter: I think the idea of unfolding is really, really key in a career in the arts because it’s so impossible to make a career in the arts. If I were to look back on my classmates in art school, almost none of them would still be producing any kind of artwork because it’s just too hard to do, even if they got art related jobs, like teaching. The teachers I had in art school weren’t doing artwork anymore because they just stopped doing it.
So you have to work your way into a place, you have to discover a place, you have to watch the unfoldment of a place to be in where you can do your artwork, which is inherently not something you could ever plan. If you were to plan it, you would be wrong. If you were to plan it, you would be planning something that either you couldn’t do, or it wouldn’t work if you could.
That’s been true of the jelly business. It was planned to be a business producing products for Dean and Deluca and Macy’s, and it turned out to be something quite else. It’s also true of my artwork. To get in a position where I could spend full time making artwork, I have to have enough money to do it, but I’ve come to see that as long as you’ve got the basic amount of money you need, an audience is the more important thing.
That is perhaps the difference with my teachers in art school who had enough money to do artwork, but they would make some sculptures, and they would have them in a show, and they wouldn’t sell, and then they’d bring them home and put them in their garage. Eventually, they got so much stuff in their garage they said, “What’s the point?” and stopped doing it. So they lacked the audience, that crucial part of it.
I suppose I might have attracted my audience, but I didn’t really do anything to do that. It came to me, and it’s more like something that wandered into my life, and then I decided to cater to, rather than I attracted it at all. So that is kind of the ultimate unfoldment, because my career is dependent on a whole lot of people that I never met when I started it, and a lot of whom I don’t know who they are now, but they just show up. And without those people, my career would be nonexistent, both in terms of an audience, and even financially, because there wouldn’t be any money to do it, and I wouldn’t be able to live in Deer Isle and make things like this, and I’d be somewhere else doing something else.
Meg: What suggestions do you have you have for aspiring artists? That it will unfold as it’s supposed to and to just pay attention?
Peter: It is said of dogs and owners that dogs are better at picking out owners than owners are at picking dogs. I think in my case, and I can’t see another way, your audience is something that chooses you, you don’t choose your audience. This has taken me a lot of years to come to this realization, because this is where I used to get mad looking at the art section of the New York Times, because I would have thought that my audience was art critics, my audience was gallery directors, and they weren’t interested in me. That’s not an audience that would have chosen me. They had some other agenda. I don’t know what it was, but it was not an agenda that included anything that I wanted to do, or would have been good at, or would have been successful at.
But in some fashion, an audience has chosen me, and that’s the audience I have. It’s a lot to learn to deal with that, because one tends to say, “Well I’ve got work to do, and I’ve got to do my work, and all these people are distracting.” You have to step back and say, “These people are more important.”
I remember I had to give a talk on how to make found object sculptures of birds for a birding festival that happens here on the island early in the summer. I can’t give the talk unless I have a lot of sculptures in front of me that I’ve made in that fashion to talk about. I was trying to get these done. I didn’t have a lot of time. I was trying to put together a piece that was like a house of cards, and I was holding it together in my hands, and if I could get one screw in, it would stay together. A car pulled in and my dog barked furiously, and I knew I should go out and get the dog not to bark because the people might get the wrong idea. But I said, “I can’t do this. I can’t go out and intervene here because I’ve got the sculpture I have to assemble. I just cannot do this.” And a voice spoke in my head, and it said, “Have you got something more important to do?” And that’s what an audience is. It’s something that you realize that you don’t have anything more important than to deal with those people.
Meg: That’s such a great story. What do most people want to talk to you about?
Peter: The most common question from the majority of people I am asked, far and above any other question, is, “Where do your ideas come from? How do you get all these ideas?”
It’s the one question I can’t answer. I have the ideas. They don’t come from anywhere—they’re all around. It’s like somebody asking, “How do you breathe air?” But the fact that people ask this means that they’re not in a similar position. There are so many ideas and it takes a lot of time to execute them; it’s a burden sometimes. It isn’t always possible, and sometimes you have to execute them in a partial and sketchy way. But there’s a kind of surrender involved in that, too, just like to the audience. I mean you have to do what you can with it, because it’s better than not doing anything, and it’s certainly better for your sanity to do something with the ideas than not do anything, because they’ll really drive you crazy if you don’t.
Meg: To wrap up, could you describe the medieval castle installation in the woods?
Peter: Right, the grail castle. That predates the western town and the juke joint. That’s the oldest sculpture around here, and it’s something I’d like to go back to. I started out putting sculptures in the woods, which are right alongside the jelly kitchen. Initially, in the early days of the jelly kitchen, you couldn’t even go in the woods, they were so overgrown. Now it’s quite park-like, but that’s both because I’ve cleared it out over many years, and because the woods have grown, the trees have gotten bigger.
There’s something very haunting and powerful about sculptures in the woods, which is what got me started there. It is still often where people go first, even though my major effort for many years here at Nervous Nellie’s has been the sculptures that are out in the open around the jelly kitchen, like the western town.
I feel somewhat remiss about not working on stuff in the woods, and in fact I used to feel bad. I’d go in the woods and feel terrible that so much work was undone. That’s another thing that I guess I’ve surrendered about, and I’ve become willing just this summer for the first time, to go in the woods early in the morning for an hour or two and just do a little something to make it better—just clear a few things and move a few things.
I also have my inventory of junk, which is quite large, is in the woods, which I thought was just a resource of mine that was of no interest. But people spend as much time looking at that as they do at the sculptures, so I’ve tried to arrange it a little better for viewing, which also helps me to find things. So it’s useful as a way of cataloguing it, really, for me.
But the grail castle legends, the legends with the knights and the dragons, are deeper myths. They’re on a much deeper, more fundamental level than the more American myths like the western town. Though there’s a vast overlap because the knights and dragons are very much like the cowboys and bad guys, and all that kind of stuff. It’s the same story over and over again. But it exists on a deeper and more subliminal level in terms of the medieval stuff and the archetypal knights and dragons, and it’s on a deeper and more subliminal level being in the woods instead of in the open.
There’s quite a power there, and I think it also relates to my personal journey because, at a relatively early point in the whole history of the business, it got to the point where we had burned through all our money, I was broke, I was to some extent in financial and legal trouble. I kept making jam. I had started the business in a marriage that fell apart. I became very sick, actually. I was hospitalized. So a lot of things fell apart all at once, and that drove me back to a very deep level, which when I came out of it, I was making the grail castle, and I was making the knights, and stuff like that.
So it speaks to a deeper level of self, maybe, than the western town. It means it’s something to go back to, and something to make more visible for the visitors. I keep trying to make one last building for the western town and knowing I should be back in the woods.
Meg: Do you think that that on a deeper fundamental level that all the symbolism is about the idea of good versus evil, and justice or fairness?
Peter: Yes, I think it’s particularly about the survival of the dream, the survival of the germ of something worthwhile and noble. I’m thinking of King Arthur as a little baby being spirited away from Merlin because he probably would have been killed if he’d stayed in the world that he was in, or the sword that is hidden and then found again. I mean those legends are full of things that are hidden away until the world is ready for them, and then they come out again. I think in a situation where my psychic and economic and physical world was all threatened, the whole survival of it was threatened that was the point that I fell back on the sacred idea that needs to be kept safe. I found a lot that spoke to that in the medieval legends, and especially in the grail legends and King Arthur.