I began writing this in the late summer as our landscape shapeshifted into Opera House Arts's world premier play Avalon every evening at 5 p.m.: wind chimes tinkling in the trees, the wizard's tower strewn with lights, the enchanting song of the Player Queen a lullaby. Merlin and Morgana share a peach in a tree, the exuberant youth Arthur handily yanks the sword out of the stone after all others have failed, Guinevere is lovely and lively (and doomed) and Mordred delightfully sinister, as himself and that dreadful, albeit essential character that lives in all of us: shadow. Ten sold out performances. Was it a lot of work? Yes. Will we do it again? Probably not. Was it worth it? Absolutely! As the headline of one theater review put it: "Nervous Nellie's infuses Avalon with whimsical enchantment." Enchantment and wonder, spiked with a little manufacturing wizardry and creative commerce - that's our mission. And, this summer we were blessed indeed to witness a troupe of myth tellers bring their story to our place. I feel sure that we will find stardust and sequins sparkling from the mossy forest floor for years to come.
I always feel stymied when I try to describe Nervous Nellie’s: a cottage industry that is actually in a cottage? A quirky living museum of island life and culture? A folk art sculpture garden that feels magical, hilarious and poignant all at once? A colorful shop of handmade goods and a tea room with homemade goodies? A sandbox with great toys? A dog that smiles? It is a treat for us to see people explore the grounds, discover the unexpected, poke into the kitchen when the kettle is boiling to have a sniff and chat up our cook, Patty. I love to eavesdrop on the ecstatic moans as people taste the jam samples for the first time, watch a child come upon a sculpture that brings delight, or see someone simply relaxing in the autumn sun on the deck, hands cupped around steaming mug of coffee watching everyone else explore, discover, and be delighted.
It’s hard to say exactly when Nervous Nellie’s began… Was it the first kitchen stove top jar sold, the date of legal incorporation, or the moment Peter came up with a company name that sounded like the not-quite- serious venture he imagined he was embarked upon? Like its beginnings, Nervous Nellie’s continues to be an unfolding, a process grounded now in the maturity of 30 years in business. Years ago, with profit margins of slim to none, we sold our jam to Dean & Deluca, we could be found on the shelves of tony Atkinson’s Market in Ketchum, Idaho and on the breakfast table of the Wrigley Mansion on Catalina Island when it was an exclusive bed & breakfast. No more. Today 90% of what we produce in our 375 sq ft factory (aka the JK or Jelly Kitchen) is sold right here: in person, over the phone or internet. Not the usual trajectory for a tiny manufacturer whose survival is generally reliant on economies of scale, volumetric growth and venture capital. We are making the same small batches that the business began with and have depended on efficiency and the steady growth of a base of loyal fans, instead of Bigness. More than anything, our visitability has ensured our survival as a made-by-hand manufacturer.
Similarly, Peter used to exhibit his sculptures in galleries in and around Portland. He delivered sculptures to Ohio, Mississippi and North Carolina. Many motels and much mileage later, not to mention the muscle and man-handling these life-size sculptures require, it became more rewarding to channel that energy into Nervous Nellie’s: installations like the Grail Castle, the still-evolving Western town—a sculptural village we call Nellieville. Smaller sculptures can be shipped, packed into the family wagon or delivered closer to home. Dozens of figures and creatures live here: knights and dragons, owls and herons, good ol’ boys and witches, a lobster and tuna playing checkers, and a pink flamingo 10 feet tall. First time visitor Deborah Nash of Exeter, RI wandered around for over an hour, taking it all in, then exclaimed, “I’ve been to the Louvre, and this is better!” Perhaps not an entirely apt comparison, but we are delighted by the spirit in which it was offered and take immense pleasure ourselves in creating a place that feels transcendent and joyful.
Peter and Anne