By Chris Buckley The Valley Independent, Monessen, Pa.
Beverly Niccolai has never forgotten her first love.
It involved taking pen or brush to canvas and making it come alive.
"It's all I ever wanted to do," said Niccolai, who began drawing at age 6. "It's my first love. We do all of these other jobs to make a living."
The owner of Beyond the Garden Gate, Perry Floral and Gift Shop II in Perryopolis has had a lifetime of jobs: secretary for an insurance agency in Pittsburgh, advertising agency employee, house cleaner and caretaker for an autistic woman.
"That was my favorite job," Niccolai said. "I learned a lot about people."
After her caretaker job ended as the family left the area, Niccolai met Jim Blair, owner of Perry Floral. He hired her, first as a part-time worker, and ultimately encouraged her to buy the business in January 2011 when he retired.
She found a business she loved in a community that became home.
"This town has a lot of friendly people," Niccolai said. "Everybody likes you and supports you. I feel I'm at home."
Niccolai said floral arrangements allow her to be creative without the pressure of painting.
Niccolai said she always wanted to display her artwork in a shop.
Her murals are displayed in the children's section of Rostraver Library and at Nemacolin Woodlands as well as churches such as St. Sebastian and All Saints.
Niccolai also spent all day on a scaffold painting a 30-foot dome in an architect's house.
She has held art shows to raise money for such cauases as autism and Amyothrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
One can feel the emotion in her portraits.
"I want people to feel something," Niccolai said. "If you don't feel something when you see one of my portraits, I'm not doing my job."
The Small Business Administration in Pittsburgh is helping Niccolai do her job. Niccolai said lead economic specialist Regina Abel has helped her market the business. Abel took Niccolai to the Art Works in Connellsville, where her artwork was first displayed.
"Regina has brought me out of my shell," Niccolai said. "I'm a good artist, but I'm not good at promoting myself.
"They want to promote small business. She just wants people to do good. They take a lot of time with you."
The SBA's Small Business Development Center and Women's Business Centers are made up of a collaboration of the SBA, state and local governments and private sector resources, and provide a vast array of technical assistance to small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Abel encouraged Niccolai to add the "Beyond the Garden Gate" to her business name to reflect her paintings, antique furniture and other decorative and consignment items on sale.
Today, Niccolai displays her art work along with her floral arrangements in her shop.
Her father, Bob Niccolai, makes deliveries for the shop. Her mother, Sharon Niccolai, occasionally works in the shop.
"My family's always believed in me."