Art Advocate Donna McNeil’s Imaginative Home Inside an 1860’s Era Church

Where can we find greater structural clarity than in the wooden buildings of the old?” asked the legendary Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe. “Where else can we find such unity of material, construction, and form? Here the wisdom of whole generations is stored.”

This might seem surprising coming from such a rigorous modernist. But Mies understood that architecture was part of a continuum, and that antecedent forms held infinite lessons about engineering, construction, and intention that could all be deployed in buildings of today.

Donna McNeil, former director of the Maine Arts Commission and the founding director of the Ellis-
Beauregard Foundation—which supports the work of visual artists in the United States—is cut from the same cloth. Whereas Mies looked to the old for knowledge, McNeil sees potential for adaptive reuse and perhaps a little mischief.

“I love architecture and working with my hands to reveal the inherent beauty of a building,” she says. “And I like living in structures that were designed for something else so that I can play.” When McNeil was hired by the foundation in 2017, she relocated to Rockland from Portland, where she had lived in a loft in a converted industrial building. 

Seven years ago, she saw a circa-1861 white clapboard house of worship (known locally as both the Second Baptist Church and Cedar Street Church) for sale by the owner. “I know a lot of people in town looked at that church,” recalls the arts advocate, writer, and curator. “But I think they all just got intimidated. I’m not easily scared.” 

The owner was Peter Davis, a musician and luthier who lived in half of the 4,600-square-foot building and ran a studio and gallery out of the other. Separating them was a cloth partition running down the center of the room from the entrance to a stage (a later addition to the original sanctuary below a choir loft). Davis had done a lot of the brass-tacks renovation work, so it wasn’t a dilapidated money pit. 

However, what sold McNeil was the 18-foot-tall windows—four on each side of the nave—that flood the space with natural light. “The light is extraordinary,” she observes. “It gives you this sense of being lifted.”

Like McNeil’s former residence, which, according to the earliest records on file, operated as a store in the city’s Old Port in the 1920s, the church had lived many lives. It was a social hall during the Civil War; a Baptist and, later, a Christian Science church; and offices for the Salvation Army. Davis had, among other things, revamped plumbing, fixed the tin ceiling, added some heating, and removed drop ceilings to reveal the church’s vaulted volume.

McNeil, therefore, worked directly with Stevan Hall, a Rockport carpenter and, she says, “jack of all trades,” rather than an architect to customize the space for her residential use. She put on a new roof, installed a new boiler, pulled up red carpeting, and painted the wood floors white. She rebuilt the front steps and replaced the makeshift railing of two-by-fours with a pipe version she painted bright yellow. She also replaced the front door, a cheap plastic version with decal “stained” glass. To give it a more important sense of arrival, McNeil framed the new double-door entry with vertical wood slats.

Two years ago, she turned heads by painting the entire structure black. Of her neighbors’ reaction, she recalls roguishly, “They felt it was a symbol of some satanic work happening inside.” Eventually, however, they chalked it up to her eccentric artistic tendencies. And after many gatherings to which she always invites those neighbors, McNeil’s and another house next door (whose owner has made similarly bold design decisions) are jokingly referred to as the “North End Arts District.”

Actually, McNeil was inspired by black-painted churches in Scandinavia. “That kind of gave me authority to proceed with an idea,” she explains. “It reduces the mass visually, making the building disappear into the night. And it’s a big hit at Halloween.”

Inside the front entry is the original terrazzo-floored foyer. To the left is a library and stairs to the old second-floor mezzanine; to the right is a powder room, a hall with a full bath, and a guest room, one of four bedrooms in the home. McNeil redid these baths and added another above the sanctuary that now serves both the primary and another guest bedroom. The reno of the downstairs hall bathroom revealed a door that had been boarded over, but neither McNeil nor Hall could figure out where it may once have led. Its original door had graffiti from the 1800s carved into it.

Almost everything was already painted white, but McNeil supplemented the palette with gray in various spaces, such as the choir loft and primary bath. Otherwise, the envelope remains monochromatic. She worked with Lowe’s to fabricate the kitchen, pairing black IKEA cabinetry with white stone countertops (on the island, the stone continues to the floor at both ends).

The biggest challenge was, arguably, lighting. Usually, kitchens combine overhead pendants and undercounter lights. But the soaring volume that at one time made the Holy Spirit happy also presents a very mortal issue: “You can’t hang anything from the ceilings because they’re so high,” notes McNeil. “You have to be imaginative.” So, in the kitchen, she illuminated surfaces with a combination of table lamps and adjustable wall lights. (Davis had already hung some Deco-era pendants from the 21-foot-high ceiling.)

The furniture is mostly a blend of midcentury modern classics—Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, her mother’s Danish modern bedroom set—and antiques that run the gamut of periods and styles. Into that mix are added items McNeil herself made, such as the dining table and the Donald Judd–inspired daybed in the library, along with occasional contemporary pieces, such as a Murano glass floor lamp. 

Naturally, as befits someone immersed in the arts, there are works by many painters, photographers, and sculptors, almost all Maine-based and quite a few who went through residencies at the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. These include painters Reggie Burrows Hodges, Andrea Sulzer, and Greg Parker; sculptors Anna Hepler and Oliver Solmitz; and photographers Dylan Hausthor and Scott Peterman.

A church, of course, is a place where people come together. Other than McNeil’s home, this remains a chief function of the space. “As we repurpose these buildings, I want to honor the community gatherings that happened here,” she says. This incarnation has hosted meetings that bring her foundation board in closer contact with the artists they serve and provided lodgings for some of those artists. 

Other activities would likely not have been sanctioned by the Baptists who built the structure. McNeil, an almost compulsive entertainer, says, “I once had 60 tango dancers perform. I threw a birthday dance party with disco lights and a smoke machine. It’s like an installation space.” 

But McNeil doesn’t really need an audience (or congregation) to enjoy this particular platform for art. When she wakes up each morning and walks out onto the former choir loft, likely possessed by the lifted voices that once echoed there, she says, “The first thing I do is sing into the space.” She strikes a diva’s pose and, sweeping her hand outward, demonstrates with a resonant “Laaaaaaaa.” 


Discovering Design in the Heart of Biddeford

5 p.m.

After what felt like a never-ending workweek, my husband and I hop in the car for a short ride south to Biddeford. We arrive at our accommodations, the 33-room Lincoln Hotel located in a former mill building from the 1850s, where we’re greeted with flutes of champagne as we check in. The ground-floor Lobby Bar and Library Space, inspired by upscale nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s, is filled with whimsical trinkets and curated design moments. We head to the fourth floor to drop off our belongings; our cozy room features exposed brick walls, expansive windows, high ceilings, and original wood elements that recall the history of the building.

6:30 p.m.

I’m getting hungry, so we walk a few blocks to Ore Nell’s Barbecue, named after pitmaster and chef Will Myska’s grandmother. Here, Chef Myska smokes a variety of meat, fish, and vegetables using traditional methods from his Houston, Texas, upbringing. We decide to share a tray for two piled high with juicy brisket, pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, mac and cheese, fries, pickles, and a Texas napkin (a piece of white bread meant to sop up excess barbecue sauce—genius!). It’s safe to say we’ll be back.

8:30 p.m. 

Time for a nightcap and a bit more exploring at the Lincoln. We consider visiting Batson River Brewing and Distilling, located in the lower level of the hotel, but my husband ultimately opts for a burnt orange Negroni at the Lobby Bar. While on the hotel’s lower level, I discover additional seating areas and graffiti-inspired murals by local artists Seth Bosworth, Bret Labelle, and Spenser Macleod.

9 a.m.

My husband has to check on the dogs, so he grabs a drink at Spinning Jenny’s Coffee Bar in the lobby before he returns home. That leaves me with a full day to explore town with no distractions—but first, a steaming hot cinnamon maple latte alongside ricotta and jam toast from Time and Tide Coffee on Main Street.

11 a.m. 

On my way to visit some shops I scoped out last night, I get distracted by the lush foliage peeking out of Moon Lady Plants. I stop in to admire the plethora of greenery, crystals, and wellness products but remind myself that I cannot fit another plant in my home office. A few doors down at Hills and Trails, co-owner James Frydrych explains how he and his wife Kanya Zillmer print outdoor-themed designs on apparel and home goods in their basement studio. (Note: Hills and Trails has since closed their storefront, but Zillmer’s designs are still available online.) Then I’m off to Wooven, a two-room boutique filled with garments, textiles, embroidered items, jewelry, bags, and baubles crafted by traditional artisans in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The indigo-dyed cotton scarves are calling my name, but I decide to wait and treat myself at a later date.

12:30 p.m.

I run into White Door Home Store to check out their hand-painted furniture and vast collection of home goods before stopping at Elements, a coffee shop/bookstore/beer bar, to browse the latest titles and grab another cup of caffeine. With a fresh coffee in hand, I walk past Biddeford’s historic City Theater. Though it’s closed today, I learn that the former opera house was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original building in 1894. Designed by Maine architect John Calvin Stevens, the theater once featured colonial revival–style ornamentation, a horseshoe balcony, stenciled ceilings, and a lavish chandelier.

1:30 p.m.

A pit stop for lunch at Papous Pita fills me up for my afternoon adventure through town. I pop into Suger, a women’s store full of local designer Roxi Suger’s sustainably made, extra soft Angelrox clothing items. The family-owned business manufactures their wares at the mill down the street, which happens to be where I’m headed next. On the way, I walk past the acclaimed Palace Diner and reminisce about the last time I tasted their life-changing fried chicken sandwich (hint: it’s been too long). My first stop at the Pepperell Mill is Sea Love, a candle bar and boutique bursting with signature scents like Coastal Boho (currants, berry, and patchouli) and Seaside Mimosa (grapefruit, tangerine, and ginger). 

3 p.m.

I find my way to Mill Studio Arts, where founder and teacher Amy Bartlett-Goodness fills me in on the variety of creative after-school and weekend programs she offers for children ages 3 to 15. As we chat, she’s setting up the studio for an Embodied Art workshop for adults, which will open with 30 minutes of gentle yoga before moving into experimental art making with alcohol-based inks. I make a mental note to sign up for a future workshop myself. Down the street in Building 10, I visit Tessera Hayes at Belfire Hot Glass and Gallery. She’s in the middle of giving a private glass-blowing lesson but lets me watch for a bit as I browse the colorful pieces available for sale in the soft glass studio.

5 p.m.

The final destination on my field trip is the University of New England Art Gallery in the Biddeford campus’s Ketchum Library, where an exhibition called Seeking Light: Plants from Shoreline to Canopy in the Arts and Sciences explores the role of plants in the environment and the creative imagination. When this goes to print, the gallery will be featuring a new collection, called Tidal Shift, which highlights works from the first suite of artists-in-residence at the Searsport EcoArts Residency (SEAR) on Sears Island in Penobscot Bay.  

Hay Runner’s Shannon Richards Embraces Projects of Every Shape and Size

Small projects, Shannon Richards admits, are “really effing hard.” After two decades in the building business, Richards was well aware of the challenges she’d face by choosing to focus her energy in this sector. “In 2018, I came up with a plan to start a new company using the name Hay Runner, which I had founded with my partner, Caleb Johnson, years ago,” she explains. “We weren’t using it for anything, so I bought the name from him. The plan was to use small projects as a way to find a place in the market.” 

It worked, partially because, as Richards puts it, “these projects are very stressful.” Renovating a bathroom, finishing a basement, replacing windows in a single room—these types of one-off tasks tend to fall outside the purview of the bigger construction companies. Smaller projects don’t necessarily require less management time. She first realized this was an issue when working at Caleb Johnson Studio, now known as Woodhull. “I had these rotten windows in my basement at my house, and I kept asking for someone to come and fix them,” she remembers. “And one day, finally, this gentleman I worked with looked at me—and he’s a lovely gentleman—but he said, ‘Nobody is going to come fix those windows, you know that, right?’ I didn’t, but he was right.” She didn’t blame her coworkers. Their priorities were elsewhere, and it was understandable. But Richards, like many homeowners, found herself frustrated with the available options. Sure, she could hire “the guy down the road who works out of his garage.” And sure, “he might get to it.” But there’s no guarantee the work will be done well, on time, or even at all. 

“We’re not the cheapest,” she cautions, “but we have a system. And you can always find us. We answer the phone, and we will call you back. We will show up, we will do a good job, and you can count on it.”

In the beginning, that’s what built Hay Runner’s reputation. For the first few years, Richards and her team of craftspeople devoted most of their time to minor works. They built a modular outdoor dining set for Portland Hunt and Alpine Club’s patio, renovated an East End kitchen, constructed a tiny home by the ocean, and staged condos in Portland. “After doing that for three or four years, I acquired Phi Builders, which is a 20-year-old company in Rockport,” she says. “Our biggest challenge right now is combining two companies that are roughly the same size but in different locations.” However, Richards is also excited about how this new influx of talent will enable them to grow, taking on more work around the state. “It’s an incredible privilege to build something from scratch,” she says. “It represents so much fresh, new opportunity.” (Perhaps this is why she also enjoys helping broker land sales, since unlike some realtors, Richards isn’t going to discourage you from buying land and building new. In fact, Hay Runner can help with the entire process, from scouting sites to interior decor.) 

In some ways, Hay Runner is a tricky company to wrap your head around. They’re not just builders—they have all sorts of subcontractors, artists, and designers affiliated with the brand. This is a reflection of Richards’s own sensibilities. She is, first and foremost, a maker. “When I was a little girl, I told my mom that I wanted to be an artist,” she recalls. Her mother wondered, as many of our parents have, how this dream would play out in reality. Would she become a starving artist? “I told my mom, ‘Well, it looks like everyone wants to make things on computers now. I am going to work with my hands.’ She looked at me and said, ‘That sounds like a good plan.’” 

Her desire to zig where others might zag led her to art school in New York state (Syracuse, where she received a degree in sculpture with a minor in ceramics), then back home to Maine. She started attending Haystack Mountain School for Crafts in 1993, and in the past decade, she’s become a regular at the program. Playing with a new craft each year has become a tradition. She also serves as the president of the Maine Crafts Association (MCA), a position that allows her to share her business experience and knowledge with the local maker community. “It feels like I’m doing something there that really matters,” she says. “When I was younger, I didn’t have a firm understanding of all the parts you need to be a self-employed artist. You have to be a saleperson, a marketer, an accountant, a schlepper, and a maker. And when I was going up in the ranks, nobody ever told me that people will try to get you to do stuff for free.” At MCA and Hay Runner, she tries to help ensure that all craftspeople are treated with the proper respect and compensated fairly for their work. “When I’m selling my business,” she explains, “I’m selling two things. Yes, I’m selling it to the people who are clients, paying us. But I’m also selling it to the people that I want to spend my days with. The people who work with me. If they are not passionate and interesting, there’s not a whole lot of point to this work.” 

All of these intersecting passions have come together to create Richards’s brand-new endeavor: a school for craft in southern Maine. With her partner, architect Caleb Johnson, Richards purchased an old school building in Lyman that they plan to transform into artist studios. “I’m developing a ceramics studio there now, which I’m calling Cone Six,” she reveals. “Ceramics is a type of making that people need to do together, and I want to make a space for that.” Directly inspired by Haystack, construction on the Lyman School Studios will be completed in early 2024. 

For Richards, this type of work is nothing short of a calling. Making, working with our hands, and contributing to the community—these are methods for thriving in an increasingly hostile, isolated world. “In the future history books, I predict people will look back on this exact moment as a time in transition,” she says, comparing our current moment to the early years of the twentieth century, which birthed modernism and the Bauhaus. “There’s so much confusion and strife, but I think beauty will be born from it. And at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. We’ve got a few minutes on this planet to make our mark.”  

Find Objects, Both Vintage and New at Viand Mercantile in the Old Port

Getting the perfect blend of shiny new and older, gently worn objects for one’s home can be tricky, especially if one doesn’t have the time or energy to visit many stores. At Viand Mercantile, her new shop on the edge of Portland’s Old Port, Jenny Bravo redefines one-stop shopping for gifts and home decor. “What makes our shop unusual is that it is vintage and new,” she explains. “While there are other stores that sell both vintage and new, I source globally, and so I have vintage and new products both from home and from abroad.”

Although she is well known for her food styling and photography business based in Westbrook, Bravo has also worked in retail on and off since her teens. “There’s been a kind of throughline in my work. I love to invoke a sense of the comfort that comes with the beauty of home. I’ve used that core anchor throughout each model of business that I have pursued,” she muses. Her latest venture emerged out of her food styling business, in fact. “I had all these props for food styling, and in order to recycle them, I would sell them. And everyone was like, we love these! So, in 2020 that led to Viand Vintage, which was an online monthly drop where I would source vintage antiques, but also sometimes pull from my styling cupboard,” she says. “That became very popular. Then I moved into a holiday pop-up mode where I found a couple of vacant spots on Washington Avenue over the years. The feedback from my customers then was, ‘We love it, but we’d like it more if it were permanent.’”

Bravo obliged her fans by looking for a permanent spot in Portland. “My studio is in Westbrook, and it’s very much on demand: I am there when I have clients and I need to be working in that kitchen. I love going in there, but I knew that with the store, I wanted it to really be an everyday location,” she explains. “I needed a little bit of that foot traffic, a little bit of the tourism, a little bit of the ease of knowing it’s around other things for my customers.” She found exactly what she sought in a large old building with expansive windows and pleasingly worn wooden floors, home to the former Italian restaurant Paciarino, right on the western edge of the Old Port.

Bravo signed the lease in the spring of 2023 and, amazingly, was able to open that fall. “I got very lucky because the landlord decided that he would take on just enough of the renovations for us. He agreed, in our negotiations, to install new floors on this side, to take out all the kitchen equipment, and to paint it a fresh white,” she recalls. “Then we would come in and do the rest, build it up, build it out. That involved taking one of the bathrooms out and adding a little space for an office in the back. And then of course making all the built-ins, and installing shelving, and replacing all the lighting.” Fortunately, she had a secret weapon in her husband, who owns a contracting company and who knew just who to call to solve any problems that arose. After many late nights (and “a lot of tears,” says Bravo, laughing now), they opened the doors in October.

Stepping through those doors (with hand-lettered name and number painted on the glass) reveals a treasure chest of objects old and new. Vintage oriental rugs cover the floors, while antique tables and armoires hold everything from the latest glossy Phaidon photography book to antique vases, and from sewing notions to oyster knives. The back of the main room has a section devoted to amusing and unusual toys for children, while an anteroom holds gardening tools and planters. Watching over it all is the Viand Mercantile mascot painted on one of the windows: a large female mallard duck wearing binoculars and a thoughtful expression. Bravo worked with strategic marketing agency Helm Digital on the design. “One of their designers, Brenna Anderson, is a birder, and she proposed this female mallard, to symbolize strength and resiliency,” she recalls. “We worked on iteration after iteration. We finally came up with this beauty, which has a bit more detail with its hand-drawn feathers. They thought to add binoculars, so that it’s birding back at us!”

The sense of fun and whimsy combined with an underlying devotion to detail that’s embodied by the mallard neatly sums up Bravo’s approach to her shop. “I would say that the store isn’t pigeonholed into any specific style. You can find something fun and funky that makes you laugh just as easily as you can find something that’s stunningly beautiful, hand built by a ceramicist from Portugal or from around the corner,” she says. “I want it to be approachable and accessible. I want everyone to have a beautiful, layered home without having to fit into any specific box.” After running a more solitary business, she is eager to greet visitors to her shop face-to-face. “We want you to feel happy and warm and welcome here. We want you to know about the products, and we want you to feel like anytime you come in, you’re going to be welcomed with a warm, happy smile and greeting. It’s not too exclusive, and it’s not too cool—it’s just fun.”

Mix It Up

Bravo deliberately carries an eclectic mix of objects at Viand Mercantile. “What we sell is very much intentionally chosen so that it can be a reflection of what you like, and so that you’re sure that all of it can work together. You don’t have to squeeze yourself into any specific trend or style. It can be layered however you feel it should be,” she explains. Here are some of our favorite things from their ever-changing lineup. 

  • On the day I visit, Bravo is excited about setting up a new bed display to showcase her incoming bed linens. “We have so many fantastic linens,” she enthuses. Wool duvets from Washington state promise cozy winter nights, but as the weather warms, gauze bedspreads from Swiss company Oona beckon. They’re available in a muted rainbow of rich natural hues.
  • An expansive antique table holds a panoply of kitchen tools, many of which are wooden and European. Sturdy rolling pins cluster in a jar while linen napkins fan across the table’s surface. The tools are beautiful, but as befits a shop run by a culinary school graduate, they’re also useful. Bravo grabs a wooden piece and explains, “I love this! This is called a spurtle, and it’s for stirring oatmeal. You don’t know you need it until you’ve used it.”
  • Tucked in a corner by the enormous front windows, a small working marble sink offers visitors the chance to try out the many delightful soaps and washes Bravo stocks. “It’s fun to give people a sensory experience,” she says. The brands are unusual—“It’s nice to to offer items that people still get excited about because they haven’t discovered them quite yet,” says Bravo. One such find is soap-on-a-rope in the shape of a bunch of grapes, from a small family-run business in the Middle East that has been making soap for generations. 
  • Finally, Viand has the most whimsical and fun doorstops. “They’re wonderful and a little cheeky,” says Bravo. Made ethically by a British company in Sri Lanka, the anthropomorphic doorstops (called “wedgies” because they are meant to be wedged under an open door) feature brightly colored portraits of everyone from Nobel Prize winners to rock stars. They make the perfect gift for the Dolly Parton or Frida Kahlo fan in your life.  

The Portland Museum of Art’s New Exhibition Demystifies the Process of Collecting

“Installing an exhibition is a bit like moving into a new house,” says Portland Museum of Art (PMA) chief curator Shalini Le Gall. There’s plenty of advance planning, but equally important are the unexpected, in-the-moment decisions that happen in the galleries, when objects large and small (and as widely varied in their material composition and stories) are considered in terms of how they inhabit space together aesthetically, and how they make meaning of their setting and physical proximity. Le Gall’s love of objects and joyful ease of sharing and conversation permeate “+ collection,” the latest PMA exhibition to highlight works that have come into the museum’s collection in the past three years. 

+ collection has the practical function of sharing new works which were mostly acquired as gifts from private collections. The exhibition is also deeply invested in the museum’s longstanding mission of art for all. In the past, PMA has used advisory councils made up of community members who lend their perspective on everything from the ways the collection is presented to the content of wall texts and to the open and ever-evolving question of what a museum should do, and should be, right now. In Le Gall’s words, + collection “unpacks and demystifies the process of collecting” to create an experience for viewers that enlightens how objects come into the museum, how to read a museum label, why people give, and what it means to be good stewards of these gifts.

Some of the exhibition’s new acquisitions were set in motion before Le Gall’s 2020 appointment as chief curator. While acquisitions often take many years from initiation to fulfillment, the process was accelerated for the PMA during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the museum’s recent gift of the Judy Glickman Lauder Collection, + collection presents three gelatin silver prints by the legendary twentieth-
century photographer/photojournalist and multimedia artist Gordon Parks. Eldridge Cleaver and His wife, Kathleen, with Portrait of Huey Newton depicts Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, a founding member of the Black Panthers, with his wife Kathleen, seated with a portrait of Black Panther founder Huey Newton. Parks was commissioned by Life magazine to create a visual and narrative story about the Black Panthers, and he traveled to Algeria in 1970 to photograph and converse with the Cleavers in the home where they were living in exile with their infant son. Parks concluded the Life piece with these resonant words: “I left Cleaver on a wet, wind-swept street. It was strange that his last words were about social justice, the kind that is irrespective of a man’s color. I thought about other brilliant young black men like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, one self-exiled, two long since gunned down. Social justice, it seems, is much more difficult to come by than martyrdom.”

At 110 by 84 inches, the subject of Luc Tuymans’s Creature (2023) is a larger-than-human presence that seems to be at once appearing, dissolving, and radiating a cool pastel aura. The renowned Belgian contemporary artist often works from found digital images, and the painting’s origin story is a computer glitch that produced an uncannily altered image of a soldier from an unspecified conflict. Tuymans’s interpretation of the image leaves the viewer wrestling with the thing’s intentions. Benign? Inert, subdued, or awakening? Like much of Tuymans’s work, the encounter with Creature lingers. The oil on linen painting was first shown by New York City’s David Zwirner Gallery in The Barn, the third in a trilogy of exhibitions of Tuymans’s large-scale new works. It was gifted to the PMA by the Alex Katz Foundation last year.

Pia Fries’s enormous oil and silkscreen panel Lochtrop, 2005, is a gift of Carla Chammas, Richard Desroche, and Glenn McMillan to the PMA. The panel’s vivid, exuberant brushwork—rendered with untraditional tools like combs and squeegees—has an almost dimensional feel that begs for a closer look. Fries, who is Swiss, earned her master’s degree in 1986 from Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, where she worked with Gerhard Richter.

The PMA’s + collection exhibition features these highlighted works among more than 50 other new acquisitions in photography, printmaking, painting, and sculpture, including new work by Derrick Adams, drawings in delightfully unorthodox materials by Paulina Peavy (smoke), and Kathy Butterly (nail polish), a bronze by Alfred Boucher, and several early, little-known paintings by the German expressionist Margarete Koehler-Bittkow.

+ collection will be on view through April 28, 2024, at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland.  

Knickerbocker Group Builds a Serene Midcoast Cottage for a Pair of Newlyweds

Nestled into the woods, this cottage is designed to capitalize on the site’s serene, natural landscape and water beyond. The clients, who have worked with Knickerbocker Group on three previous projects, will host their daughter’s wedding on the family site and reengaged the firm to design and build a Honeymoon Cottage for the newlyweds to retreat to once the wedding festivities wind down. The structure is relatively small in scale, with a minimally disturbed landscape and three separate “pods” connected by glazed bridges. Black shou sugi ban siding and a dark bronze metal roof meld the residence with its wooded and mossy environment, while expansive windows maximize water views. The foundation system is minimalist, with slender concrete cores anchored directly to the ledge to minimize site impact. This allows the floor structure to cantilever on all sides and create the sense that the cottage is “floating” above ground. The interiors serve as an extension of the site, with clear vertical-grain Douglas fir wrapping the surfaces and dark black and bronze accents harmoniously unifying the inside and outside settings. Floating shelves, a sculptural ceiling-mounted fireplace, and a waterfall vanity are paired with handmade tile and solid stone features to visually ground the cottage in its graceful presence above the wood and sea below. As a haven, the Honeymoon Cottage will greet the newlyweds through all the seasons of their life together.  

Location: Midcoast Maine
Architect: Knickerbocker Group
Builder: Knickerbocker Group
Interior Designer: Knickerbocker Group
Landscape Architecture: Carson Douglas Landscape Architecture & Knickerbocker Group
Construction Start: Summer 2023
Construction Complete: Summer 2024

Katrina Kelley of Amphitrite Studio on Timeless Textiles and Following Your Passion

Katrina Kelley learned to sew at the early age of 4. Nearly 40 years later, she’s turned her creative practice into a thriving business designing and stitching home goods—including napkins, tablecloths, towels, aprons, and more—with long-lasting fibers in simple, earthy colors. Linens from Amphitrite Studio, named after the Greek goddess of the sea, have been featured in Remodelista in Maine (Artisan Books, 2022) and can be found at the famed restaurant the Lost Kitchen. In her interview with MH+D Inside Out, Kelley reveals the fuel behind her passion, why linen is best, and how nature inspires her classic designs. 

Q. How would you describe your aesthetic?

A. My design structure is made of strong, clean, classic lines with a soft touch of natural beauty. Heirloom linens that are versatile and functional for every kind of home. My colors and fibers are all derived from nature and are part of the earth tone family, from soft roses to deep irons, imbibing my “brand” with a love of nature and harmony in the creations. 

Q. What led you to launch your own studio?

A. I came to a point in life where I was ready to chase my own dreams of being self-employed and doing something I love. In my 20s, I wasn’t ready for that kind of decision. Plainly put, I didn’t want to work for other people pursuing their dreams anymore. I was ready to turn a lifelong hobby into a business of my own. 

Q. How has your business and craft evolved over time?

A. I’ve always known this would be a sewing studio. When I began this endeavor, I started out by making women’s clothing using natural fibers. It took a couple of years of clothing to realize I was more of a homebody than a fashion designer, so I shifted my focus to creating quality natural fiber items for the home. 

Q. Tell us about your design and stitching process.

A. Sometimes I think of an item and try to find a fabric to match that idea, but most times it starts with finding a fabric I love. When I hold it in my hands and close my eyes, I can see just what it wants to become. I start with a prototype, usually rough but made with actual fabric. I never use patterns, just my own designs and dimensions. All of my stitching is done in small batches of 5-15 per color at a time. I have cutting days where all I do is cut in-house fabric into inventory. Serging days are spent on my overlock machine straightening and hemming edges. Stitching days turn all those hemmed edges into stronger final hems with tags. 

Q. What’s your favorite textile to work with and why?

A. Linen, hands down. My childhood was rooted in a love of fine French linens and sewing, but it took 30 years before I put the two together to create my business. Linen is a classic staple and it has so many natural properties that I love—I rarely ever work with other fabrics. I find it easy to design with and the finished product is always lovely to the touch. 

Q. What draws you to working with foodies and restaurants in particular?

A. My late brother was my familial soulmate and a master chef. We grew up with our best memories in kitchens. He not only knew the right ingredients to use in a meal but cooked with his heart and soul, too. He followed his passions and loved fiercely. When he passed away, I felt the urge to carry on with his torch and passion as my fuel. I do what I love, and it’s no coincidence that I put my love into making something that will build similar cooking memories with my customers and their loved ones. 

Q. How do you describe your relationship with Maine, and how does it affect your work?

A. As a child of the Catskill Mountains in NY, every summer in Maine was perfection. I’ve never felt more at home in a state than I do in Maine. My love for this state is bottomless. Maine holds such a strong culture for the crafts, a dedication to hard work, and is full of such wonderful communities. Nature is all around us and in our lives, which feeds my soul and makes me want to work harder for my craft. 

Q. Your studio is committed to creating and using items that are “good for you and the earth.” Why is sustainability important to you? 

A. I am a follower of nature. I’m far from perfect because I am human, but I strive to have the smallest footprint possible while I get the honor of walking this beautiful earth. I respect Mother Nature and all she offers. The natural and beneficial properties of the flax plant are some of the most extensive among fabrics. It is not treated with formaldehyde and harsh chemicals when it is being produced, and because of that process, all of these properties like thermoregulation, anti-fungal, and odor control stick around in the fabric that it becomes. 

Check Katrina’s heirloom linens at

Mark Ferguson of Brant & Cochran on Preserving the Traditional Craft of Axe Making in Maine

When Mark Ferguson’s brother, Steve, couldn’t find a high-quality, American-made axe for his son entering forestry school, the two men decided they needed to take action. Drawing inspiration (and the name Brant & Cochran) from their late grandfather’s tool supply business, the Ferguson brothers set out to honor the traditional craft of axe making while focusing on heirloom quality tools that can be passed down for generations. In his interview with MH+D Inside Out, Mark Ferguson discusses Maine’s axe-making history, the inherent satisfaction of creating products by hand, and the importance of a supportive maker community.

Q. What initially drew you to this craft?

A. Family history. My grandfather, Leland Ferguson, was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1909 and moved north to work in auto factories in Detroit. After WWII, he started a tool supply business selling army surplus machine tools—this was the original Brant & Cochran. Every summer during my high school and college years, I worked in small machine shops in Detroit for friends of my grandpa: an auto parts maker, a magnetic tool company, a plastics extrusion factory, all kinds of stuff. Even though I followed a far different career path by becoming a lawyer, I was always fascinated by machine shops and the talented folks working in them. Being part of a small craft manufacturing business now brings me full circle.

Q. What can you tell us about the history of axe making in Maine?

A. Due to the ubiquity of the logging industry in Maine, it was natural that edge tool making would follow. Maine became one of the largest axe-making centers in the country with much of it happening along the Messalonskee Stream in Oakland. Maine even had its own pattern, the Maine Wedge, which is the type of axe we make at Brant & Cochran. Companies like Emerson & Stevens, Spiller, and North Wayne Tool made thousands of axes after the Civil War until the last shop closed in the 1960s. There’s a neat video called Pioneer Axe on YouTube—it was shot by a Colby graduate, Peter Vogt, in 1964 and is a fascinating look at the tail end of the glory years of axe making in Maine.

Q. Why is preserving and reviving this traditional craft important to you?

A. Like logging, axe making is in the state’s DNA. When my brother was looking for a good American-made axe (if not one made in Maine) for his godson going to forestry school and couldn’t find one, it made him a little nuts. No axe making in Maine? It’s like finding no cheese making in Wisconsin. Unthinkable! In bringing axe making back to Maine, we hope to honor and spotlight the makers of the past while also building a craft manufacturing business to last the next 100 years.

Q. Walk us through the design and manufacturing of a Brant & Cochran axe.

A. The design is simple—we’re making a traditional Maine wedge pattern axe based on an axe head we borrowed from the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum. To make our Maine wedge axes, the Allagash Cruiser and Dirigo Belt Axe, we start with a billet of U.S.-made 1050 carbon steel, heat it using a gas forge, and punch the eye with a hydraulic press. Once the eye is formed, we start fullering out the bit of the axe, then grind it to the final shape. We heat treat the axe in kilns and then quench it using the waters of Casco Bay, as our shop is on the Fore River near Bug Light Park in South Portland. From there, we finish grind the axe until it’s wicked sharp, haft an Amish-turned hickory handle on it, and finally snap on a Maine-made leather sheath to protect it. When completed, we have an axe that Field & Stream Magazine has called one of the four best in the world.

Q. What makes the Maine wedge pattern unique?

A. The Maine wedge is characterized by a very large and heavy poll, which is the part of the axe above the handle, and a simple “V” shape from the handle to the cutting edge. These axes were made to slice through the frozen white pines of the northern Maine forests. I recommend visiting the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum, the Maine Forestry Museum in Rangeley, or the Maine Forest and Logging Museum in Bradley to see their collections of Maine wedge axes and get a real taste for what logging was like more than 100 years ago. It wasn’t for the faint of heart!

Q. What do you find most satisfying about your work?

A. There is something primal and satisfying about putting in a day’s work and then holding the thing you made in your hands. It can’t be deleted. It can’t be hacked. It can’t be made by AI. It can only be created by our makers working as a team to take a piece of steel and then apply heat, force, and skill to make an heirloom quality tool, which some also consider a piece of functional art.

Q. What makes vintage axes special and why are they worth restoring?

A. We do a lot of axe restoration work for folks who want to bring their grandpa’s axe back to life or fix up an axe they found in their barn or woodlot. The axe is one of those tools that people get emotionally attached to because it reminds you of sitting around the fire with family and friends, chopping wood to keep your family warm in the cold of winter, or using the tool when camping or canoeing. Each axe tells a story, and that’s really what we are restoring—not just an old piece of steel.

Q. What’s special about the maker community in Maine?

A. We wouldn’t be here without them. In 2015, we started in the Open Bench Project maker space at Thompson’s Point (our little 8’ x 8’ space is now the commercial kitchen at Brick South). We leaned on makers there for help and advice, many of whom are still working with us. The blacksmith community also helped us out, even when we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning—some would say we still don’t! Members of the Maine Craft Association, Maine Outdoor Brands, the University of Maine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, and the New England School of Metalwork have all rallied behind us. It is the Maine way. You ask for help and help is given.

Check out all of Brant & Cochran’s Maine-made axes, accessories, and apparel at

Photography by Brian Threkeld of

14 Flawless Backsplash Ideas for Any Interior Aesthetic

Whether you favor clean and classic subway tile or a pop of color and texture, incorporating a backsplash into your kitchen or bathroom isn’t just functional—it’s plenty of fun. Though backsplashes were traditionally meant to prevent water and grease from damaging the walls of a home, they offer a unique opportunity to customize a space with personality and flair. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of options available (ceramic, glass, metal, stone, and wood—oh my!), keep scrolling for inspiration from Maine designers and their clients.

The primary bathroom in this Mount Abram ski house features two trough sinks in a rustic wood stand and a pebbled backsplash that reaches to the ceiling.

Interior Designer: Erica Palm
Builder: Winterhaven Custom Builders
Photographer: Erin Little
Location: Greenwood

Photographer, brand strategist, and mentor Mallika Mahlhotra’s 650-square-foot studio showcases a pure white palette infused with oak accents and blush tones. Pink ceramic tiles in the kitchenette are vertically stacked end-to-end to pull the eye upwards.

Interior Designer: Samantha S. Pappas
Builder: MasterCraft Carpentry
Photographer: Courtney Elizabeth
Location: Falmouth Foreside

Punchy blue cabinets and a backsplash from Discover Tile decorate this winterized vacation home’s kitchen, while neutrals tone down the bright hue in the adjacent sitting area.

Architect: John Battle
Interior Designer: Janice Battle
Builder: Jordan Custom Carpentry
Photographer: François Gagné
Location: Naples

Homeowner Stephen Peck designed this midcentury modern kitchen with custom cabinetry by Acorn Builders, a backsplash wall of handmade Casa Cielo tiles, and leather-finish granite counters from Intercontinental.

Architect: Elliott Architects
Interior Designer: Stephen Peck
Builder: Acorn Builders
Photographer: Trent Bell
Location: Dedham

Though creative agency An Aesthetic Pursuit’s design is partial to curves and color, the team selected muted square tiles from Nemo for this Kennebunk kitchen backsplash.

Interior Designer: An Aesthetic Pursuit
Builder: Corrado Construction
Photographer: Claire Esparris
Location: Kennebunk

White framing around the decorative Italian Carrara and statuario marble backsplash in this modular Kennebunkport residence helps the patterned wall stand out as an artistic feature.

Architect: Marcus Gleysteen Architects
Interior Designer: Marcus Gleysteen Architects and Helena Galle
Builder: Bowley Builders
Photographer: Trent Bell
Location: Kennebunkport

Patterned blue and white tiles add a quiet nautical touch when paired with twin columns of white cabinetry and floating teak shelves in this modern interpretation of a traditional Maine cottage.

Architect and Builder: Taggart Construction
Interior Designer: SIMPLYHOME | Banks Design
Photographer: François Gagné
Location: Freeport

Custom walnut cabinetry and open shelving by Northe Woodworking showcase this creative couple’s collection of vintage pottery and dishware, while granite countertops pick up the dark slate color of the tiled backsplash.

Architect: Woodhull
Interior Designer: Morrison Design House
Builder: R.P. Morrison Builders
Photographer: Trent Bell
Location: New Gloucester

In the kitchen of this coastal cottage near Goose Rocks Beach, blues and grays create an oasis of calm; a backsplash of handmade porcelain tiles adds a soft texture to the cheerful space.

Architectural Designer: Erik Peterson
Interior Designer: Hurlbutt Designs
Builder: Creative Coast Construction
Photographer: Erin Little
Location: Kennebunkport

A white picket tile backsplash sourced from Old Port Specialty Tile Co. adds character to this stylish condo’s kitchen.

Interior Designer: Fiore Home
Photographer: Jamie Salomon
Location: Portland

The Stoneview Spa—part of a 4-building, 40-acre property designed and built by Knickerbocker Group—includes a kitchen with cabinets by Tidewater Millwork, countertops by Morningstar Stone and Tile, and a dark, glossy backsplash from Old Port Specialty Tile Co.

Architect, Builder, and Interior Designer: Knickerbocker Group
Photographer: Darren Setlow
Location: Midcoast Maine

Subway tile with a crackle finish picks up the blues of the granite-topped island and the beadboard ceiling in this charming kitchen designed for entertaining.

Architect: the Design Company
Kitchen Designer: Atlantic Design Center
Builder: Douston Construction
Photographer: Jeff Roberts
Location: Old Orchard Beach

Mixed metals and an unexpected herringbone backsplash add to this South Portland condo’s coastal industrial aesthetic.

Interior Designer: Centerline Design and Build
Photographer: Erin Little
Location: South Portland

Designer Leandra Fremont-Smith blends the vivid colors and cheerful patterns of classic New England prep in this bright kitchen that features a unique plaid backsplash.

Interior Designer: Leandra Fremont-Smith
Photographer: Jeff Roberts
Location: Coastal Maine

Savor the Good Things in Life at Fika Boutique in Ellsworth

On Route 3 in Ellsworth, where the scenery starts to shift from big-box stores to smaller structures and open fields, an old building stood at a crossroad. The longtime home of an off-season Christmas shop for summer tourists had fallen into serious disrepair after the business closed. Most people driving by saw an eyesore at best and a teardown at worst. But Melissa Bradford saw potential in the spot as she drove daily between her home and her hair salon in downtown Ellsworth. 

Melissa had been running her salon, the Alchemist, for nearly 13 years, but she was on the lookout for a new challenge. “I was feeling like I needed another creative endeavor,” she recalls. “I had clients constantly commenting on things I’d be wearing and wondering where I got them. It dawned on me that there was nowhere to get these things in the area. I was doing pretty much all my shopping online, and so my wheels just started turning.” She continues, “I wanted a space that created a real retail experience again, where you could come in, and somebody would actually help you find things or give you advice on what to wear it with. I like to design, whether it’s hair or helping somebody put an outfit together.”

In reimagining the space, Melissa was lucky to have her husband Andrew, a finish woodworker, as an eager collaborator. He agreed to look at the dilapidated building with her. As she recalls, “It was a rainy day. There was water pouring through the ceiling. There were holes in the roof. There was wood rot. There was mold. And yet Andrew said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Andrew picks up the tale: “I said, ‘Why don’t we tear out big windows and vault it?’ I knew she loved vaulted ceilings.” After signing the purchase papers (“Even the guy that came to do the assessment was like, better you guys than me,” Melissa says with a laugh), they began demolishing and rebuilding. “But we had to make all of our own windows because it was the pandemic,” says Andrew. “Everything was outrageously expensive. We couldn’t find help, and we couldn’t get materials.” 

“Andrew was here pretty much all the time doing all the work,” Melissa says. “But while it was a terrible time to do it, it was also the perfect time, because we thought, what else are we going to do right now?”

The building is now practically unrecognizable: the exterior is covered in inky black siding framed by softly waving grasses, and enormous high windows allow light to flood the interior. The transformation astounded locals who had written off the building. Andrew laughs as he remembers, “It’s awful, but accidents were happening outside on a weekly basis because people were paying attention to the building and not to the traffic light. We’d be working in here and suddenly hear a crash.” White walls and light floors further add to the sense of Scandinavian-inspired spaciousness and calm inside. As Melissa says, “When I go into a space, if it’s too jam-packed, I have to leave. It just messes with my head. I didn’t want that here.”

Once the structure had been revamped, it was time to turn to interior design. “All of the furnishings in here are salvaged; nothing was bought from a store new,” explains Melissa. Andrew adds, “This table was from my family’s camp, and Melissa painted the bottom of it. It had been at our camp since the 1920s, and nobody really wanted it, but Melissa saw its potential. Now, all our family members want the table back!” Dominating one wall of the shop is a gorgeous old armoire that brims with linens, books, and throw pillows; Andrew notes that it came from his mother’s house in Bangor as she downsized. “She didn’t have space in their new place for it because it’s so huge. And she kept asking, can you use it? She paid for movers to bring it over, and it cleared that beam by two inches.” Now, it looks like it was made for the space.

Melissa is pleased with how she furnished the shop but is most proud of the goods she has filled it with. “Most of what I purchase for the shop is very simple. It’s things that can be mixed and matched. It’s kind of capsule wardrobe components, and we have some fun little pieces that you can incorporate as little pops here and there,” she says. “It’s timeless, it’s classic, it’s not fast fashion. It’s made of quality materials that aren’t going to be destroyed after two times of washing them. There’s linen, there’s cotton, there’s hemp—clothes that are being ethically created, not in a sweatshop. We love that.”

Along with her emphasis on quality materials, she feels strongly about inclusivity in fashion: “I want anybody from any walk of life, any size, any age, to walk through the doors and feel comfortable and feel like they can find something. So I’ve got a lot of one-size-fits-all. Of course, I’ve got a lot of things other than clothing,” she says. “Maybe you’re at a time in your life where you’re not buying a lot of new clothing items. Well, there are all sorts of things you can enjoy. Everybody loves beautiful hand cream or a lovely candle.” 

Taking the time to light that candle or meditatively rub in that hand cream is where the name she chose for her shop resonates. In Sweden, fika is both a verb and a noun; it usually means a sweet treat alongside a hot cup of coffee, but more abstractly, it represents pausing and savoring. And while it’s hard to imagine this entrepreneurial businessperson slowing down, she does relish her downtime. “When I’m not working, I have such an appreciation for slow living,” says Melissa. She hopes that a sense of calm and ease comes through in her shop. “One of the nicest things we hear from customers is that the space has a peaceful feeling; when they come in, they feel like they can take their time,” she says. “I think, when you’re doing things from the heart, you can speak without words. I think it touches people who are on that same wavelength.”

Take It Easy

In Swedish, the word fika is associated with pausing one’s work and taking time to appreciate the good things in life. For the Swedes, this often means coffee and cake, but at Fika Boutique in Ellsworth, it comes through finding delightful objects for the home or for oneself. “I chose many of these products from women-owned small businesses. They’re made with ethical, sustainable materials, and many of them are made in Maine,” explains Melissa. Here are a few of our favorites for slowing down and taking it easy.

  • A large table showcases an assortment of scented candles (with evocative names like Coastal Boho and Tan Lines) from Sea Love of Kennebunkport. “Sea Love made a special Fika candle for us. And they sell like crazy, everybody loves them,” says Melissa.
  • The recycled wool blankets draped strategically over chairs and stacked high in Andrew’s mother’s armoire are from TBCo, a Scottish B-Corp company that uses recycled wool and other fibers that would otherwise clog landfills to create soft rainbows of color for snuggling up in. 
  • Once you’re snuggled up in a blanket, what you really need next is a hot beverage in a nice mug. Rockland-based Good Land Pottery mugs fit the bill with their organic shapes and textures, while Fika also carries a tasteful assortment of ceremonial cacao drinks to fill them. If you need to leave your blanket fort, Good Land also makes reusable to-go cups.
  • Womenswear fills most of the clothing section, but there are a few items that will appeal to male visitors as well. “I live in baseball hats, so I have a wide range,” explains Melissa. Andrew continues, “Our electrician had a guy working for him—a very quiet guy, very understated—who came right out and said, ‘I really like that hat.’ If that guy can find something, we must have an excellent range!”  
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