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Practical Magic: Portland, Maine

Practical Magic: Portland, Maine

Makers in this down-to-earth New England city mix common sense with playfulness.

Practical Magic: Portland, Maine

Makers in this down-to-earth New England city mix common sense with playfulness.
June/July 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Katy Kelleher
Studio 24B walnut dining set

Lobster tastes better on a walnut dining set by Studio 24B. The furniture design firm makes custom pieces for any room or leafy woodland.

Michael Wilson

A simple guitar melody wafts down cobblestone streets, barely perceptible in the chatter of gallery-goers. Offices have closed for the day, and happy hour is almost over. But the midsummer sun is still high in the sky as locals and visitors alike spill from restaurants onto Monument Square. Fresh-faced art students have set up a table selling sea-inspired handmade jewelry. Nearby, on Congress Street, a vendor hands out samples of herbed goat cheese to a crowd of well-dressed women as they shed their blazers, shoulders bare in the warm air. It’s the first Friday in July, and the art walk in Portland, Maine, is in full swing.

“Over the last 20 years, I’ve witnessed a massive evolution and growth of the arts community,” says Erin Hutton, director of exhibits and special projects at Maine College of Art and co-founder of Studio 24B, a furniture design firm she runs with her husband, Matt, a furniture maker and ACC 2015 Emerging Voices award finalist. Portland’s development as a cultural hub partly stems from the monthly ritual of the First Friday Art Walk, when galleries, studios, and museums across the city open their doors to visitors, while vendors, performers, and artists set up tables on the street to sell and promote their work. “It’s an important way to get people to come out and see what is going on in town. When it first started in 2000, everybody was so hungry for it,” Hutton remembers. It has since grown to become Maine’s largest free monthly cultural event, spawning numerous similar happenings in cities around the state.

The event, where oil paintings, handmade leather goods, and local beer (among other offerings) are all represented, is a convergence of the creative work happening throughout Portland. Here, “craft goes beyond furniture and ceramics and jewelry and metal,” Hutton says. “It’s beer, wine, food – makers of all kinds.”

That cross-disciplinary collaboration occurs outside of the art walk, too. The Oxbow Blending & Bottling tasting room, for example, houses Gallery 49, a contemporary industrial arts space that shows funky modern works. Exhibitions have included sculptures by Sam Gilbert, a Brunswick artist and frequent collaborator of internationally lauded Maine artist John Bisbee [“Sublimely Sharp,” Aug./Sept. 2015]. Nearby, Urban Farm Fermentory, an organic cider and kombucha brewer, hosts weekly Maker’s Markets on Saturday afternoons, as well as classes ranging from Party’n With Plants, a create-your-own terrarium workshop, to coal-burned spoon carving.

The cross-pollination of Maine’s maker culture can also be attributed to the highly practical nature of its residents. Financial necessity (Mainers often work several jobs because of the seasonal, tourism-driven economy), coupled with Yankee independence, has created a fierce DIY culture. “There is a frontier spirit in Maine,” explains South Portland ceramist Jonathan White, whose sculpture and functional work blend Arts and Crafts influences with the hard edges of industrial machinery. According to White, people in Maine place a high premium on both self-reliance and ingenuity. “There is a tendency toward self-sufficiency,” he says. “People are figuring it out and going their own way.”

Even in traditional crafts such as stained glass, Maine artists have found a way to forge their own paths. In a sunny studio 15 minutes north of Portland, artist Laura Fuller builds fanciful windows from found objects, stones, and glass panels. Her distinctive pieces can be found at K Colette, a downtown boutique that specializes in Maine-made housewares, and adorning the windows of Commercial Street, Portland’s major downtown thoroughfare. (Peek into the window at the Cabot Farmers’ Annex to see a striking example of her work.)

Like White's work, Fuller's art takes traditional elements and adds a twist. She remembers taking a class at a small stained glass shop: "One day, I came in and I wanted to put this old bottle in my piece. My teacher told me, 'No, that's not stained glass.' " She laughs – of course, she did it anyway. Now, more than 20 years later, she continues to make windows and other sculpture, sometimes partnering with Angela Adams, an award-winning textile and furniture designer. In 2016, she installed a colorful sculpture of a tree in the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. The 18-foot sculpture features 95 “hidden treasures” for children to find, such as tiny motorcycles or butterflies.

Public art is all over Portland, in fact. Sculptures include the traditional, such as Deering Oaks Park’s majestic bronze Hiker, and the modern, such as Robert Indiana’s massive Seven in front of the Portland Museum of Art. 

There’s even art underfoot, thanks to the efforts of potter (and ACC trustee) Ayumi Horie and storyteller Elise Pepple, co-creators of the Portland Brick project. To build public memory (and mend city streets, which take a beating from the brutal freeze-thaw cycle of New England winters), they made dozens of bricks from clay gathered on Horie’s Portland riverfront property, then stamped each with a short story or message gathered from residents of Portland’s India Street neighborhood. Stories range from deeply personal (Rabbi Harry Sky’s description of his family history, Iraqi-born Ghassan Hassoon’s celebration of becoming a US citizen) to offbeat, lighthearted, and sometimes a little oblique. (“Priscilla and Loretta’s shoes could be heard click clacking on their way to church,” reads one recently installed brick.) 

In true Mainer fashion, the Portland Brick project is utilitarian, handmade, and understated. “We set out to highlight stories that were about people who were decidedly not famous,” says Horie. “It’s the anti-monumental monument. It’s about everyday moments and about being human.”

These simple bricks are small but mighty, just like the vibrant and bold city around them and the artists who call it home.

If You Go

Old Port and the East End
While the Old Port neighborhood has long been a destination for craft enthusiasts, the East End is an up-and-coming district that’s not to be missed. At Portland Pottery, sip coffee from mugs made on-site before browsing the wares of local ceramists – or supplies to make your own at home. If you’re in the mood for a beer, pop into Oxbow Blending & Bottling, where you can try a pint of Schweinshaxe, a German-style brew flavored with Maine maple syrup, and check out the art that adorns the walls of Gallery 49, one of the city’s more contemporary and youthful art spaces, housed in the tasting room. K Colette, a home goods boutique, features artisan-made merchandise such as soaps from Wary Meyers, candles from Finn & Co., and minimalist jewelry by Lisa Gent. Portland Art Gallery features fine art, including work by Maine sculptor Dick Alden, while PhoPa, a nonprofit, specializes in works on paper. 

The Portland Brick project stamps stories gathered from the India Street neighborhood in pavers that fill gaps in its streets. Check out a map of the project before heading out on foot, so you can find all 30 stories on display.

Arts District 
The western side of the Portland peninsula has a classic New England feel, thanks to its stately brick townhouses and ivy-covered mansions, yet it’s here that you’ll find some of the most innovative art in the city. First, visit the Portland Museum of Art, where you can view sculptures by Sir Anthony Caro, Betty Woodman, and John Bisbee, as well as historical pieces from the Portland Glass Co.

To catch a live show, check out the calendar at Space Gallery. (If you’re lucky, you may be able to sit in at a pecha kucha symposium, where designers, artists, and makers showcase their work in speedy six-minute lectures.) The nonprofit also hosts visiting artists from around the globe and rents studio space to local artists of all sorts. To see curatorial work by Erin Hutton of Studio 24B, stop at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art. Finish the day with a visit to More & Co., an eclectic seasonal boutique that sells wooden toys, charming ceramics, and stylish kids’ clothes. If you happen to be in town on the first Friday of the month, check out the First Friday Art Walk, where galleries, studios, and museums throughout Portland open their spaces free to the public.

East Bayside
Ten years ago, the East Bayside neighborhood wasn’t on most tourists’ radars, but these days it’s the place to be, thanks to craft breweries on almost every corner – earning it the nickname “Yeastside” – and innovative spaces populated by makers of all kinds. On Saturdays, shop for wares at the Urban Farm Fermentory Maker’s Market or take a tour of Running With Scissors, an artist-run studio collective that is also home to Bayside Clay Center. If you need to update your yarn collection, pop into PortFiber, where you can purchase weaving, knitting, felting, and crochet supplies. The shop also offers classes where you can tackle projects such as felting a miniature cactus or weaving a weft-face rug.