“Who would think something like that would happen to someone from Genoa, living in southern Iowa? How can that happen? I don’t know.“
Nancy Bennett would hold on to her rhetorical question of fame and family as if it were a kite on a string.
To their adopted city of Centerville, the Bennett name may be best recognized as the founders of the hugely successful Dannco. The building’s glass exterior, framed in dramatic black with gold-colored enhancements has occupied the northeast side of the city’s downtown square for nearly three decades.
Nancy and husband Dan are well known throughout the city’s civic community serving on various boards, with a strong belief of giving back to their community. The couple engages in city projects, collations, groups and fundraisers. A second generation of Bennetts have now integrated into the family business as son Nathan and daughter Annette oversee the day-to-day operations.
Main Street Centerville Executive Director Mary Wells praised Bennett as she accepted an Iowa Main Street award last year in Des Moines.
“Nancy is the perfect example of using common sense strategy, driven by one’s unique assets, a true Centerville treasure,” Wells said.
Bennett started her first venture, Signs and Designs by Nancy at age 26. Next, she would co-found Dannco with her husband Dan. By age 40, the acclaimed local artist would found The Walldog Movement, a group of mural artists from all over the globe. As a support to the global ungoverned Walldogs, Bennet founded yet another entity in 2014, the non-profit Walldogs Public Art.
Nancy B. Bennett, 66, is a local artist and culture historian, educator, founder, volunteer, and administrator. Her story is a sweeping tale of an artist who sees a world that the average person doesn’t, interrupting it with an open heart, mind and soul.
‘We had nothing of value’
In the spring of 1953, Nancy Adamson, the last of five children was born to Glenn and Mildred in Genoa, a small rural town south of Seymour near the border of Iowa and Missouri. Nature gifted the world an artist. Nurturing her artistic skills through life-long education, perseverance, failing and succeeding would test the mettle of Bennett’s heart and spirit.
“I grew up in Genoa on my dad’s salvage yard,” begins Bennett. “We had nothing of value. We had nothing in our house that was what it was meant to be. I remember our handrail going into the house was an old iron bed rail frame. We made our sofa from a ‘63 Ford’s leather backseats.
“Everything in a salvage yard is there to be sold or is meant to be changed into something else. I grew up having free rein of that salvage yard, so I learned to be creative.“ Pausing, Bennet reasons, “Yes, I’m sure that’s where the roots of my creativeness came from.”
From the salvage yards of Genoa to the schoolyards of Seymour, Bennett recalls having her art praised for the first time.
“In kindergarten, I drew the best pig and I got a blue ribbon for a hand-painting,” she said. “We couldn’t afford to have toys that much, so whenever I went to the dime store I would have just enough money for a paint set. I don’t remember ever not having a paint set and not painting because they would last a long time.”
The passage of time would solve the mysteries and eventually dull the adventures of the salvage yard. Nancy’s early life of recess and the PTA matured into yearbooks and the FFA. Now a teenager Nancy was about to meet her life’s partner in crime.
“Dan and I attended Seymour High School at the same time. I was a junior, and he was a 15-year-old sophomore. We didn’t know each other, no dating, nothing, but we were both on the student council,” says Bennett. “This was back when Vietnam was going full blast and we had decided to make and sell peace signs out of felt for the backs of letter jackets. So I made them and Dan sold them. We raised something like 50 bucks, maybe 80 for a school dance.”
The enterprising teens’ first attempt at selling art, unfortunately, came afoul with the long arm of the school administration. In a unique twist-of-fate, Nancy and Dan’s principal was Maurice Stamps. Stamps later in life would garner fame as the author of five World War ll autobiographies, all written after the age of 96.
“Yes, Mr. Stamps told us to cease and desist. He didn’t believe the school should sanction peace signs. So in 1969, he shut down our first business attempt, sort of. But we didn’t hold it against him,” smiles Bennett.
Peace signs, felt, principals, and Vietnam may not have been groovy in 1969, but a 15-year-old yin had found her 15-year-old yang. “Dan and I have always needed each other because I would make it and he would sell it,” explains Nancy.
“After graduating from high school in 1971 Dan and I began farming near his parents’ in Promise City,” Bennett said. “I’ve always done arts and science on the side so in 1979 while we were farming I started my first venture, Signs and Designs by Nancy. We continued into our 30s until the farming economy went capot in the early ‘80s. That’s when Dan had time to join me in my sign business.”
Soon, Nancy and Dan moved their start-up business to a storefront in Allerton. The early baby steps of the sign-making business received a boost when the Allerton Booster Club ordered logo T-shirts. Not wanting to miss out on a good order and a chance to grow the business’s reputation Nancy bought a book on how to screen-print T-shirts.
The booster club’s order was filled and in 1989, Dannco added sporting goods and relocated from Allerton to Centerville. Screen-printing remains a business revenue stream today, some 40 years later.
The Creative Process
Living in Centerville, Nancy had only to look 15-miles over her shoulder to recognize the six-year-old girl bouncing through the Genoa salvage yard. Decades removed from the dime store paint set, the calling to create remained but the cast and the set pieces were different.
“It all has to do with the creative process,” explains Bennett. “As long as you can be creative, the tools can change and the circumstances can change. But I don’t want to get old and sit in my chair and regret that I couldn’t change and be creative in some other way or form.”
Dannco was in its fourth year in 1993, serving southern Iowa and northern Missouri in all things sports-related. The family’s business and the family’s family were prospering. Son Nathan and daughter Annette were already in high school.
Business, family, not even the certainties of death and taxes had yet to separate the artist from her canvas. Benett explains the difference in creating art and buying art: “It’s the reaction to the tools that you are using to create. It’s the finished product that gives depth to the satisfaction of making it happen that isn’t there if something is between you and the tools, or if something is there between you and the final product.”
“I didn’t go to a typical college and get a four-year degree so I have taken night classes from DMAC and IHCC,” she continued. “I have attended lots and lots of classes and workshops from the best master-craftsmen who do gold-leaf, airbrushing, glue-chipping or the skills that were pertinent.
“During this time I belonged to the Iowa Sign Association in Des Moines. They would offer gold-leaf and pictorial workshops as well as others. When they would have contests, I would submit signs and often I would win so they knew my work.” Little did Nancy know that her reputation as a serious artist working in the almost obsolete disciplines such as hand-lettering, and glue-leaf art would be her thrill of 1993.
Meanwhile, across the nation in California, arguably the most famous person on the planet at the time was waiting on the restoration of his 1973 Crown Design Locomotive. Michael Jackson’s 2,700 acres of the Neverland Valley Ranch was home to his mansion, a small zoo, carnival rides, a train station and miles of train tracks. The King of Pop’s world-famous digs were months away from churning infamous.
But in the summer of 1993 Jackson was still thrilling the world with his hit, “Black and White.” “Dangerous,” his most recent album at the time, was released two years prior.
A flatbed truck had delivered Michael Jackson’s train to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa en route to Neverland 1,900 miles away. The train was being restored at Shop Services located on the grounds of Old Thrashers. The company is closed now, but in 1993 they were nationally known for restoring older trains while providing maintenance for the Old Thrashers.
When Michael Jackson’s company requested period-correct gold-leaf lettering and sophisticated pictorial restoration Shop Services contracted out the work to a sign company in Burlington. But even the sign company couldn’t provide an artist versed in the old-school, precision disciplines of hand-lettering, gold-leaf, and pictorials that were required by Jackson.
But they knew someone who did, and she only lived 91 miles away.
The six-year-old girl from Genoa didn’t blink staring down the world’s most recognizable entertainer. The 200-ton locomotive was the seance’s median between the two artists.
Snapping open her dime-store paint kit containing the magical smudges of green, blue, yellow, red and black, the small girl who had dared to let her gift dream big needed a little water, just a very little bit of water to loosen the tiny stiff hairs on the artist’s brush.
“There’s something about holding that brush in your hand, seeing the paint come off of it, and seeing what it creates that gives you a great deal of satisfaction,” Bennett said. “I’m going to liken it to playing jazz because in jazz you get to interpret while you do it.”
Although Jackson never visited Mt. Pleasant during the summer of 1993, he continually called Shop Services on the phone to check his locomotive’s progress. The locomotive was christened “Katherine,” in honor of Jackson’s mother.
It’s difficult to read how thrilled Nancy Bennett was that the Michael Jackson contention requested her art to serve as the notes to the train’s song. The train of a king — the king of pop.
“I had qualms about it. I did,” Bennett remembered. “But when I looked around the area and who was available, it’s like, well, it has to be me. But Anette was a senior in high school and she flipped out.” “At first, I had to get my paintings approved by Jackson’s agent, which is why I still have them. Then once my work on the train was approved, they said, ‘OK, you can do whatever you would like to do.’”
Bennet recounts some of her work on the Neverland train.
“I did the lettering on the train using two different karats of gold, 23 karat and 18 karat,” she said. “And then there were multiple outlines and drop-shades for the lettering. I did gold-leaf borders around each area of the tinder. On top of the tinder I did more gold-leaf and border work. As far as drawing, I recreated the boy in the moon pictorial three different places on the train. And then the lid of the water tank lifts up and I recreated the picture of his eyes from the album Dangerous. I probably spent three days a week from August 12, 1993, to December 12 in Mt. Pleasant.”
Nancy Bennett moves like an artist, eyes taking in more detail than the average person. Limbs almost dancing through a world that she doesn’t judge. The mind, heart and soul of an artist is necessary to be open for interpretations of our ideas, triumphs, thoughts, loves and fears.
“I don’t think of retiring because that sounds like an ending,” she says as if she were a professor addressing her class. “There’s work to do and there’re things to do to help ensure that art goes on. I mean we are so passionate about what we do and you get to interpret things every single time when you are a creative person. The work becomes real personal, and it’s easy to get emotional.”
Working with a palette of only blues and reds, Bennett’s canvas is far from finished.
“Who would think something like that would happen to someone from Genoa?”
A six-year-old girl’s right-hand pulls up, the string she is holding on to for dear life is taut and strong. A gust of warm wind plays havoc with the red kite flapping in the mile-high blue. Her dreams were soaring.