Two of the best, most prolific Quad Cities artists have literally painted the town. And next time you’re out on the QC Ale Trail, to paint your own good time, you can admire their beautifully colorful work in a new Bettendorf brewery.
Heidi Sallows and Sarah Robb — who are forming their own new business, MuralSoup Co. — recently completed transforming walls at the entrance, and some large windows at Nerdspeak Brewery, on the east end of Bettendorf off U.S. 67, at 7563 State St.
“We tagged team on this entire thing,” Sallows said recently, noting she did a lot of prep work.
“Sarah came in and she’s really good at helping me organize ideas for the project,” she said of her longtime friend, Robb. “She balances me. I throw all this creativity at her.”
“I always make the joke that my left and right brain are punching each other,” Robb said. “She’s a very abstract thinker and I think that’s where we balance each other out. She’ll just go for it, and I need more structure.”
Nerdspeak owner Aaron Ickes gave the women direction on the art themes he was looking for his retro bar (which opened last November) – sci-fi, dark, cyber-punk, pop culture, Japanese Manga, and just plain cool.
“I know what I want, but I don’t have the talent to do it,” he said. “Also, I wanted to use their creativity. I know what I want and they put their touches on it. It’s amazing.”
“Nerdspeak is a brewery like no other in the area,” its website says. “Featuring a retro, industrial, cyberpunk interior, the walls will be adorned with graphics from movies, shows, and musicians. One of the biggest inspirations for the space has been ‘Star Wars,’ owner Aaron Ickes’ favorite movie universe of all time. Beer styles will continuously rotate on tap and include less common items such as Belgian styles, barrel-aged beers, and even seltzers.”
Sallows and Ickes both graduated from Riverdale High in Port Byron in 1995, and Sallows and Robb have collaborated on public murals since their first in 2010 — the huge sea-themed wall at the former Cabanas at 2120 4th Ave., Rock Island. It covers 66 feet wide and 33 feet high.
Among many partnerships (including for the Quad City Arts summer Metro Arts program), the two talented women painted the 80-foot-by-20-foot wall next to Fred and Ethel’s off 30th Street and 14th Avenue in Rock Island (a new city-funded pocket park) mainly by Sallows, in summer 2018.
“It was so huge, I had to have help, so I got Sarah involved,” she said recently. “She got other people involved. I really didn’t make a lot of money personally off it, because I had to pay other people. I need to get this done.”
“It was like two weeks; I was sleeping in my van,” Sallows recalled, noting several Metro Arts students also helped to paint that. “Without Sarah, that project would not have been completed.”
2018 was a very busy year also for Robb, who has worked as a lead artist for Metro Arts for 16 years. That program is a paid apprenticeship for 15-to-21-year-old students in a variety of arts disciplines, including many outdoor public murals.
In summer 2018, Robb also led the painting of the EveryChild (formerly Child Abuse Council) wall facing 6th Avenue in downtown Moline between 15th and 16th streets and did a mural for Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. In 2020-21, she led extra Metro Arts projects for a Quad Cities Cultural Trust mural on the Main Street side of River Music Experience, Davenport, and indoor wall murals at the new TBK Bank headquarters in downtown Bettendorf.
Sallows — who moved back last fall from living full-time in Arizona for over four years — painted two murals at Radicle Effect Brewerks (1340 31st St., Rock Island) in 2013 and 2015. She’s also painted at Bent River Brewing, 1413 5th Ave., Moline, including last summer in the restaurant space. So Nerdspeak was a natural alcoholic progression.
Love from home brewing
Ickes (who formerly worked for John Deere) got his passion for beer by doing home brewing over 15 years.
“Brewing has stuck with me, and I’ve always had a desire to have my own business. It finally got to the point where, watching the craft industry grow, this might be a good opportunity. Then it came down to finding the right location.”
Ickes had been coming down to the Crossfit gym (next to his building, which opened in 2019) for two and a half years, and fell in love with the spot and the possibilities of the former machine shop.
“I just decided it was the right time in my life to go for it,” he said, noting the century-old buildings were renovated and the insides were gutted.
“My next door neighbor used to work here when it was a machine shop,” Ickes said. “The owner re-did the outsides, but the garage door on, and made it structurally sound.”
They built the brewery and all the complete interior, with bar, tables, and games (video, arcade, and board games). Rock Island-based Crawford Company supplied brewing equipment, and Ickes did his first test batch last May.
He originally hoped to be open indoors last July 4, and ended up having an outdoor lawn party on June 18. It was just before Thanksgiving when he finally opened to the public inside.
“I call it a retro pop culture bar,” Ickes said. “This is kind of who I am internally.”
Nerd as alter ego
The name “Nerdspeak” is based on him “barfing out quotes all the time,” he said of his favorite films, like “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” and of course, the “Star Wars” series.
“I think that’s where we became kindred spirits,” Robb said. “When we first met, I thought this is gonna be great. I love it already.”
At the entrance, Nerdspeak has a photo of Han Solo on the men’s room door, and Princess Leia on women’s door, with a Stormtrooper model standing sentry.
“I say it was my mom, because she was pregnant with me when she saw the original ‘Star Wars’ in ’77,” Ickes said of his sci-fi franchise obsession, noting he was born that September.
He’s admired Sallows’ immense artistic talent for years. “It’s all over the Quad Cities,” he said. “We knew each other and I knew she had serious talent, and I knew it was gonna be a good fit.”
It was great timing for Sallows, since she had moved back to the QC full-time last November, after living in Arizona four and a half years. “It’s all saying, it’s good vibes to come back,” she said.
Sallows often came back to the QC in the past summers to work on mural projects with Robb.
Transforming a space
Sallows said murals are supposed to help transform the space, and bring the viewer into another place and time, and they did exactly that at Nerdspeak.
The bright, fluorescent colors in the front entrance evoke images from “The Fifth Element,” “Blade Runner,” and cyber-punk style. Inside, Sallows covered a huge window with the iconic bike across the moon scene in “E.T.”
Ickes would like to cover most all the brewery walls with murals, and add booths.
“We’ll paint everything,” Sallows said. He wants to put a Pac Man grid on the ceiling. The tables were custom made by a carpenter next door, with walnut.
“Since I started working on a business, it’s amazing the connections in the local community and that’s one of my goals too – to use as much as locally sourced labor and materials as possible,” Ickes said. “Having a brewer equipment manufacturer in your own town is unheard of. There are like two or three U.S. brewery manufacturing companies. Most of it comes from China now, or Germany.”
Crawford Brewing and Distilling Equipment is based in Rock Island.
Ickes was part of a tap takeover at Bettendorf’s Five Cities last May, and said that overall, the QC craft brewing scene is very collaborative and non-competitive.
“Brewing and breweries are so much a destination,” he said. “The more breweries you have in an area, the more willing people are to travel and visit all of it.”
Challenging launching the bar
Ickes said it’s challenging for Nerdspeak not only opening in the wake of COVID, but also being set off the road, in a relatively isolated location.
“There’s a lot of traffic on this road (U.S. 67), and there’s a lot of growth happening,” he said. “We’re still getting more people than repeat customers.”
Ickes plans to have an outdoor patio, live music and food trucks.
“I think I surround myself by nothing but nerds; that’s what is happening in my life,” Robb said. “I’m getting compliments on your space. You’re doing a good thing.”
In another plus, Ickes said Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” fame is moving in next door, to create a showroom for his cars and motorcycles.
“They’re beautiful vehicles,” Sallows said, after seeing some of the space.
The Nerdspeak spectacled face logo is based on Egon, the Harold Ramis character from “Ghostbusters.”
“Before we even had a name, he was in my brain,” Ickes said. He wears contacts, but has glasses. He likes the murals because they’re locally made and so colorful.
“They’re much more appealing to me than gray walls,” Ickes said. “It’s just an expression of art. Beer is art as well. You gotta have a vision, but you also gotta have the ability to put it down. That’s what I lack — I can have a vision in my head, but putting it on paper or a wall…”
“I can’t brew beer, so there’s that,” Robb said.
Playing nerdy games
There are a lot of board games on the shelves at Nerdspeak, which is part of Ickes’ nerd personality.
“Board games, video games, movies and music are my big things,” he said. “We’re still finding our niche and board games are becoming one of those things. These tables are perfect for board games.”
The big white Cosmotrons video game came from Analog Arcade Bar in Davenport. “It’s challenging,” Ickes said of the two-person spaceship battle game. “It’s hard but fun.”
Nerdspeak has a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pinball machine and Super Nintendo on the big screen.
“A lot of people bring out their inner child here,” Ickes said (his website implores, “Unleash Your Inner Nerd”). “I see a lot of people my age; I see a lot of people older than me. We’re starting to get more of the younger crowd, too.”
“For both of us, this was a really nice change of pace,” Sallows said.
Ickes sees the re-use of the old buildings similar to what was done with the East Moline buildings at the Rust Belt complex, pulsing with new, hip life.
“I think that stage out there will be key,” Sallows said of Nerdspeak. Ickes likes to model his brewing style and brewery vibe off Wake Brewing in Rock Island.
The bar hours are 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 3 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 563-232-1037 or check their website.
To see more of Robb and Sallows’ work, see this slideshow: