DEER ISLE, Maine — There’s a certain logic to Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, but don’t feel bad if you’re puzzled by its sprawling, seemingly random mix of sculptures and stuff collected from landfills.
The six-acre plot on Little Deer Isle surrounding a gift and coffee shop is laced with trails that run through thick woods past life-size mockups of a Wild West town, a Holy Grail castle and wizard’s tower and a juke joint — a kind of informal music venue generally operated by African-Americans in the post-slavery South.
The property is dotted by hunks of rusting old cars, wood and metal sculptures of knights and cowboys, engines and odd piles of junk such as rusted bow rakes. And watch out for the guy running around with a sword.
“One of the things that ties it all together,” said sculptor Peter Beerits, the man responsible for the property, “is that all of these places are the subjects of myth. The Wild West is myth. King Arthur is myth.”
What began in the 1980s as a store to sell Beerits’ jams and jellies has evolved almost accidentally into what Beerits calls “a museum of natural history for the mind.” Nowadays, some 30,000 people visit it each year. And this summer, it will host performances of a Stonington Opera House play written specifically to be performed at Nervous Nellie’s.
One visitor this week, Ohio resident Adam Hoffman, said he loved puzzling out the themes of Beerits’ creation and his use of found materials, things that the 67-year-old sculptor pulled from landfills or found alongside the road.
“You look at it and you wonder what was going through the author’s mind,” said Hoffman, who was visiting Nervous Nellie’s for the fourth time. “I see stuff that’s Arthurian legend, stuff that looks like it comes from Macbeth. It’s like [Beerits’] imagination has just exploded.
“And there are some things here,” Hoffman added, “that are just inexplicable.”
A Pennsylvania native with a Master of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach, Beerits has spent the last 35 years assembling his creation.
He opened the store where he sells his jellies and jams on Sunshine Road in 1984 and put some of his unsold sculptures out on the sprawling acreage because he lacked storage for them. He crafted paths around his works and people started touring the site when they weren’t buying jam.
Nervous Nellie’s general store playscape set the pattern for the rest.
About 12 years ago, Beerits grabbed a portion of a Deer Isle general store building owned by longtime Deer Isle Selectman Neville Hardy and had it moved onto his property. Beerits filled it with artifacts from the closed store plus lifesize sculptures of Hardy and his pals, who used to sit in the store for hours and gab with the customers or conduct town business, he said.
“As an exhibit, it did not work,” Beerits said. “Nobody went to it.”
But when Beerits fashioned the juke joint, based on a place he visited in Mississippi, along a path several yards from the general store, people started visiting both. Beerits suspects that people started catching the vibe of the place as they explored the sculptures, the two buildings and the leafy forest surrounding it all.
Soon, the walking paths became at least as important to visitors as the jams and jellies, of which he sells about 50,000 small jars a year, he said.
The vibe was enough to inspire a site-specific play that the Stonington Opera House will perform at Nervous Nellie’s starting on Aug. 15.
“Avalon” is a retelling of the Arthurian legend of the sword and the stone and the king’s knights in which the performers and audience will gradually move through the Nervous Nellie’s playscape as the play unfolds, said Melody Bates, a New York City-based actress and playwright who wrote and performs in the play.
The first three of the nine performances are sold out, according to the opera house website.
Bates had first visited Nervous Nellie’s as a college student in the early 2000s. She was performing three years ago in the Opera House’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” when she had what she called “a light-bulb event.”
“I realized that I had to write a play based here,” said Bates, taking a break from rehearsing a scene in which a knight ran through the store with King Arthur’s famous sword. “This place has an atmosphere that draws you in and ignites your imagination.”
Beerits said he is unsure how long he will continue to run Nervous Nellie’s. He and his wife, Anne Beerits, get wiped out by the frantic pace of the summer tourist season. But he loves seeing the intrigue on people’s faces as they try to find the meaning and themes of his work.
“I think it’s important to look at stuff a second time,” Beerits said. “You tend to miss a lot of things if you don’t and you can spend a lot of time in your life focusing on things that are really not important.”