Norman Deaton, Holly Nelson, Craig Snyder

Meet three of Plymouth’s most profound artisans.
Holly Nelson in front of Winter, and oil on canvas painting from the Four Seasons series by Miranda Moss, recently on display at

Art, it is said, can be found everywhere, in virtually everything. This month we’d like to introduce you to three Plymouth artists who have mastered the art of many mediums, and who push themselves to see the possibility of art in a variety of materials.


Norman Deaton

Norman “Neal” Deaton is equal parts sculptor, model-maker, painter, scientist, botanist and inventor, a jack-of-all-trades who has created some of the country’s most renowned natural science exhibits, including the infamous Fenykovi elephant, which, in all of its prehistoric glory, presides over the rotunda in the National Museum Smithsonian Institution.

But Deaton says his foray into what was a virtually undiscovered vocation in the 1950s when he first started out, wasn’t exactly planned.

“I found this profession by sheer accident and luck,” says Deaton as we sit in the living room of his Plymouth home, examples of his life’s work (including a 1/48th scale of the Smithsonian elephant) adorn tabletops, curio cabinets, walls and a studio. He owns myriad photo albums of more pieces too big to contain within their pages, much less a house.

A farm kid from rural Iowa, Deaton developed a passion for animals and nature, and a love of art that had its roots in cartoon drawing. When his tour was up with the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. in 1954, he considered the advice of a friend to head to the Smithsonian’s exhibit shop. After a gig at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, he began a four-year stint at the Smithsonian, where a 12-year revamp of the exhibits was just getting underway. “I was at the right place at the right time,” Deaton says.

But wanting to utilize more of his artistic skills (painting the backgrounds, creating the botanical elements and didactics, doing research), he ventured out on his own. For the ensuing decades, Deaton sculpted and crafted a treasure trove of animals and filled many a museum with pieces that are perceived as nothing less than lifelike. From the woolly mammoths to big-horned steer to horses to foxes to marine animals and most everything in between, Deaton has captured each detail to perfection. “It’s all about the attitude of the animal,” he says. “If you don’t have that right, it won’t look real.”

This lifelong artist is mostly retired, but still takes on commission work and family requests; he is in the process of creating a crow sculpture for his wife, Laura. “There weren’t any guidebooks to help me with this career,” he says. “But what a wonderful experience it has been.” —NE

Norman Deaton


Holly Nelson

Growing up in Crystal, Minn., Holly Nelson was one of those kids who loved doing art projects. So what, you might ask? Nelson became the kid who moved on from coloring books to bigger canvases—and recently a new position as the adult program director for Minnetonka Center for the Arts.

Nelson, who moved to Plymouth with her husband and two daughters in 1990, spent her younger years honing her creative talents at Robbinsdale High School. “I got involved in music more than the visual arts, especially in high school. Robbinsdale had a really strong theater department,” she says. Nelson then began studies in art history, through which she got the opportunity to live with an artist in Tanzania for four months.

Come graduation, she was at a crossroads. “I really needed a way to earn a living, and I decided to go to law school thinking I could study international law and find some way to combine my interest in African studies and travel,” Nelson says.

With a law degree in her pocket, Nelson was off to New York state. It wasn’t until she started a family that she reached another turning point. “I had to really decide how I was going to spend my very limited free time with small children at home. When forced to make a decision, I decided to take a continuing education class. That’s where it first got reignited again,” Nelson says of her love for the arts—the class was portrait drawing.

Her family moved to Miami for a year, where she studied figure drawing, then it was back to the great state of Minnesota where she dug into classes at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts.

“Because I’m considered a U of M student for life, all I needed to do was take studio arts credits and I could get another degree. Even with small children at home I was still able to make it happen,” Nelson says.

It took Nelson eight years to complete her second bachelor of fine arts in painting and drawing, during which time she began exhibiting and selling her work. She began teaching at Minnetonka Center for the Arts (2240 North Shore Dr., Wayzata; 952.473.7363) and Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts (6666 East River Rd., Fridley; 763.574.1850).

“I taught for more than 10 years and had my studio in the northeast Minneapolis arts district for 11 years, and decided I had reached another transition point in my life where I felt like I had accomplished everything that situation had offered me,” Nelson says. “That’s when I decided to move my studio home; within two weeks I saw the job posting for Minnetonka Center for the arts.”

As the new adult program director, Nelson’s foremost goal is to bring new audiences to the art center. “I have a particular interest in how important the arts can be to improving people’s mental, physical and intellectual health. I think it’s an important component to being a whole person,” she says. “For instance, I’m trying to develop some partnerships with individuals who have been diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The new leading lady is also looking to invite veterans out to the center for a workshop or series. Another important partnership she hopes to build is with corporate employees who are working on a lot of deadlines and under a lot pressure. “To work with different types of materials that stimulate all the senses can be restorative,” she says. “It offers an escape from day to day life, a chance to feel refreshed.”

Nelson believes there’s a lot to draw from the Plymouth landscape and much of Nelson’s artwork stems from Plymouth. “I draw a lot of inspiration by living near French Regional Park. A lot of my personal artwork is nature-based. I’ve spent hundreds of hours walking through that park and enjoying the wetlands and wildlife. One of the beauties of being in Plymouth is being out there with the ability to escape to the urban landscape,” she says.

Her medium of choice: pastel. “I love the directness of it,” she says. “Whatever idea or emotion I’m trying to convey, it goes right out on my fingertips, right onto the paper.”  —RC

Holly Nelson


Craig Snyder

Sometimes artists know from a very young age that they are destined to create art. Sometimes it just happens a little later in life. This is certainly the case for Craig Snyder, who after spending much of his adult life in international trade development and creating websites for businesses has suddenly piqued an interest in the arts.

“A buddy of mine signed up for a fused glass class at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, but I couldn’t get in. So instead I took a few welding classes, and it was just too much fun,” says Snyder, his enthusiasm palpable. “It’s exciting, it’s hot, and it appeals to my inner pyromaniac. I love the fact that you can take this solid piece of metal that you think you can’t bend and apply heat and twist it and make it do what you want it to do; I love the immediate gratification of it. It’s a nice change of pace from what I do during the day.”

This “nice change of pace” has taught him to seek out scraps of steel, copper, iron, brass, glass and “anything else that appeals” to him from salvage yards, friends or anyplace such materials are cast aside, waiting to be melted, manipulated, hammered, wire-brushed and turned into art.

Snyder has pursued this passion with zeal and recently garnered a studio space with friend Judd Nelson. To help get their art out there en masse, the duo has come up with a clever idea they call “art on a stick.”—they create a commissioned object of choice (anything from a bird, plant, animal or sports mascot) and affix it to a base you can put in your yard or garden.

Snyder also joined the Minnesota Society of Sculptors and exhibited two pieces at the group’s show at the picturesque Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

“I would love to do art on a much larger scale, creating really large pieces,” he says. “And I would love to pursue it full time. Art is my avocation now; I’d love it to be my vocation.” —NE