Curt Nelson holds up one of Connie Cerretti’s paintings on corrugated metal at Skeeter Creek Fabricators. The new store doubles as an art gallery and antiques shop. Nelson, a retired art teacher, runs the shop most days for friend and owner Ken Bose.Nelson holds up one of Maureen Harding’s sculpted “faerie houses.”Budding animator Veda Sword, a former student of Curt Nelson’s at Panorama High School, has a series of whimsical oil paintings on sale at Skeeter Creek Fabricators, 104 E. State St.

‘Ready or not, here we are’

New store offers original art, with antiques on the side


There are art critics, and then there are chicken critics.

After 32 years as an art teacher and ceramist, Curt Nelson can handle the former, no problem.

As for the latter, he’s learning that making art is one thing — selling art in small-town Iowa is going to take some practice.

“I’m going to feel them out,” Nelson vowed last week at Skeeter Creek Fabricators, recalling how he essentially blew a sale recently of original art just by noting that the piece was inspired by the artist’s trip to Guatemala, where she had been struck by the number of chickens and tin roofs.

Skeeter Creek, which opened in June on the north side of the Square as an art gallery/antiques shop, has several of Connie Cerretti’s works for sale, each of a life-sized chicken painted in acrylic on a large sheet of corrugated metal.

About a month ago, a lady in the gallery was sold on one of the pieces — for a friend who collects chicken items — until she found out it was a Guatemalan chicken.

The lady, Nelson recalled, was disappointed it wasn’t an “Iowa chicken.”

“Chickens are chickens,” Nelson said, still somewhat mystified.

Cerretti, who is actually Nelson’s older sister, is among the artists whose work is just waiting for the right buyer to come along.

The trick, said Nelson, who runs the store most days in retirement for friend and owner Ken Bose, is just getting people in the door.

“Sometimes,” Nelson said, “people need to be assured it’s OK to come on in.”

This weekend’s Small Business Saturday — the annual push to shop local in the aftermath of Black Friday’s corporate doorbusters — would be as good a time as any to visit one of Jefferson’s newest small businesses.

“I go to Valley Junction to the art shops and they know I’m not going to buy anything,” Nelson said. “But some day, I may.”

Only time will tell whether Jefferson is ready to support an art gallery after a previous art gallery — in the same exact spot — closed its doors.

“I just hope it can be an outlet for people to get nice artwork that isn’t printed off 100 times,” Nelson said.

“Ready or not,” he added, “here we are.”

If nothing else, Bose, a Lutheran minister by day in Perry, should win an award for creating Jefferson’s most improved storefront, “so it looked like a store instead of a house,” Bose said.

In the year leading up to Skeeter Creek’s June 1 opening, Bose worked during his time off to single-handedly renovate the front of 104 E. State St., one-half of the historic, Victorian-era Riley Hall, a double storefront with an ornate, upper facade of pressed metal.

“Nobody knew we were doing it,” Bose said. “Boy, were we the talk of the town.”

“I like to spring surprises on people,” he added.

It’s hoped that the welcoming new storefront will help Skeeter Creek, whereas the old, windowless front admittedly hindered Crafted, the previous gallery operated by Bose’s daughter, Stephanie Hammond.

“There were none of these windows,” Nelson said. “You didn’t know what you were walking into.”

Art, after all, is scary enough by itself.

Bose, 62, who bought the building nearly six years ago, hopes that he and wife Sue can run Skeeter Creek in retirement.

“It has a little bit of an unusual name,” he conceded, “but we’ve had nothing but compliments.”

The name harkens back to his childhood in the Yale/Jamaica area, growing up on Mosquito Creek.

“Everybody called her Skeeter Creek,” Bose said.

Called into the ministry late in life, the ex-auto mechanic is in business primarily to give himself something to do in retirement.

“If we make a little money, that’s OK,” he said. “But let’s have fun.”

The original art carried by Skeeter Creek is augmented by antiques — and, in spots, it’s indeed hard to tell which is which.

“There’s no way you can make it on just art,” Bose reasoned. “Or just antiques.”

He even offers an unadvertised third service — clock repair.

“I still like to fix things,” he said.

Bose tapped Nelson, who retired to Jefferson after 25 years as an art teacher at Panorama High School, to hold down the fort until his own retirement.

“For me, he’s a real asset,” Bose said.

Nelson taught both of Bose’s daughters in school.

Hammond’s work is literally placed above all others at Skeeter Creek. She and her parents readily agreed this past summer to be the first to adorn their downtown roof with art by Jefferson Matters: Main Street.

An original piece by Hammond is available for view only from the observation deck of the 14-story Bell Tower across the street.

Bose himself is a certified folk-artist, whose functional birdhouses — rural barns, churches and schools in miniature, made from recycled barn material — were the focus of a Chicago Tribune story in 2001.

Within his first year of making the birdhouses in 1999, the Tribune reported, Bose sold $10,000 worth of his work.

He still makes them when he has time. In retirement, his wood shop will be in the basement of Skeeter Creek.

Until then, Nelson is something of Skeeter Creek’s resident talent scout, using his contacts to acquire new work, from oil paintings to handmade jewelry.

The artists no doubt are drawn to the generous, 70/30 split of the profits. At most galleries, it’s a 50/50 split, Nelson said.

“Here,” Nelson said, “we’re giving them 70 percent.”

Among the artists Nelson has brought on board is Maureen “Mo” Harding, of Iowa City, the former longtime curator of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.

Forget Hooverville. Harding has moved on to sculpting adorably whimsical “faerie houses.”

Veda Sword, a former student of Nelson’s at Panorama from Yale and a budding animator at the University of Iowa, has a series of oil paintings for sale of frolicking animals.

“I can just see them in motion,” said Nelson, who recently sold one of her paintings of a pig hula-hooping.

On this particular afternoon, Nelson was trying to figure out where to put all 18 framed pastel works delivered to Skeeter Creek by John Evans, of Richland, Iowa, president of the state pastel association.

“I didn’t know he was going to bring that many,” Nelson confessed. “They’re quality pieces. They just light up.”

The Victorian tea room a couple of doors down has emerged as a “great draw” for Skeeter Creek.

“We probably sell more of the antiques than anything,” Nelson said, “but I’m hoping the artwork takes off.”

For one, he now knows what to say and what not to say to customers.

He said he plans on asking anyone near the chicken paintings, “How do you feel about Guatemala?”

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