Maine craftsmanship is front and center at Maine Craft Portland.
Say the word “craft” out loud and see what pictures it conjures up. Tempera paints? Construction paper? Acrylic yarn in garish colors? Now replace it with “craftsmanship.” Suddenly the images are of finely wrought work (maybe metal, maybe wood, maybe clay) emerging from the hands of an artisan dedicated to practicing and mastering their chosen form. It’s the latter meaning that the nonprofit Maine Craft Association (MCA) embodies; in its mission statement, it states that it “builds upon Maine’s rich craft traditions by nurturing a vibrant, supportive, inclusive craft community.” The MCA, which was founded in 1983, was recently restructured; a new C corporation, Shop Maine Craft, now manages all the MCA programs that directly focus on shopping. This includes the Center for Maine Craft at the Gardiner rest area, a website, and Maine Craft Portland, which opened on Congress Street in the summer of 2018.
As manager Maria Wolff shows off the Maine Craft Portland store on a bright morning, the sun streams in through tall windows to highlight pieces made by artists and artisans from across the state. Housed in gleaming wood and glass cabinets that run the length of the shop, a multiplicity of items beckons: intricate Wabanaki baskets, finely finished wooden lounge chairs, shimmering silk and wool shawls. Many objects are one of a kind; all have been carefully selected. “All the artists in this gallery go through a jury process,” Wolff says. Professional membership in the MCA is required in order to sell work through Shop Maine Craft; additionally, a craftsperson’s work must be chosen by a jury of fellow artists and artisans in order to be showcased in the retail stores.
There have been only three tenants in this beautiful, high-ceilinged space, Wolff explains. “At first, there was a jewelry store in here, Carter Brothers Company. These cabinets were built in the 1890s for that store.” Photographs from 1947, 1972, and 1983 in the Portland Public Library’s special collections and archives show the Carter Brothers storefront remarkably untouched by time. When the jewelers closed after over a century in business, a vintage clothing store, Encore, moved into the storefront for the next 20 years.
The space became vacant when the owner of the vintage shop retired. Wolff says the situation was ideal for Shop Maine Craft, which had been looking for new retail opportunities. “For years, we had been trying to open up another gallery somewhere with a little different demographic. Especially in the greater Portland area, where there’s a lot of tourism of all different kinds, everything from the airport to the cruise ships coming into port. And then we found this wonderful historical building,” she relates. “To be in the heart of the Arts District, in a beautiful space, it truly is perfect for the work.” The fact that it was part of the historic Mechanics’ Hall was serendipitous. “There’s a nice supportive connection between the two organizations. They’re both nonprofits trying to sustain craftsmanship in the community,” she says.
“To be in the heart of the Arts District, in a beautiful space, it truly is perfect for the work.”
In the spring of 2018, renovations began. The electrical system was upgraded, and new lighting was installed. Adding a new restroom and a secondary entrance on Casco Street helped the entire hall become ADA compliant. A new floor of wide wooden planks was laid, and the windows underwent some deep cleaning. “All of the front windows had been painted black because the amount of sun that was coming in here bleached out the vintage clothing. So we had to clean all the windows,” Wolff recalls. Most important, the 1890s cabinets were restored and cleaned. Wolff gestures at them in wonder: “I mean, a nonprofit organization could never afford to build this kind of cabinetry.” Assistant manager Jaime Wing points out a favorite detail: above the old Carter Brothers safe, the words “electric protection” are carefully inscribed. “I’m particularly interested in this pin striping and lettering up here. I mean, that was done by hand once upon a time,” he says. “You would probably not see this done today. But it’s lasted so long and it’s still here.”
We turn from the safe (with its intact state inspection stickers from the 1920s and 1930s) to the nearest cabinets, where Wing shows off the results of a recent themed event: the Crafter’s Gambit, for which more than a dozen Maine craftspeople made elaborate chess sets. Wolff recalls, “I had been trying to get artists to make chess sets for us for a while, but it’s a lot of work. It’s 32 pieces!” Recognizing this, many craft artists collaborated to make their sets, including Wolff herself, who worked with David Masury to create a set of copper chess pieces on glass placed over a burled wooden board that dips in the center. Other pieces combine craft practices like woodwork with quilting, as in the case of Peter and Sandra Asselyn’s batik fabric and applewood and maple set. But the collaborations didn’t stop there. Wolff says, “I was able to get hold of the Maine Chess Association, and I asked them if they could bring in some grandmasters. They went a step further and flew in Sabina Foisor, who was the 2017 U.S. champion. So she came, and they set her up with a proper electronic chess set. We had it projected on the outside of the building, and people could pay to play her.”
It’s this type of event that Wolff longs to hold again, once pandemic worries ease: events that bring people into closer contact with Maine artisans and their work. “I’m very much into collaboration with other organizations. It’s really the joyous part of creating,” she says. “We try to do all of our openings on First Fridays, and we used to be able to have live music in here. We used to make it a big to-do. We want to have our big openings again and really shine.” Ambitious plans are already afoot for Maine Craft Weekend, an annual statewide celebration of craft in October. Wolff hopes to showcase the metalwork of Nick Rossi, Jason Morrisey, and Nicholas Wicks Moreau by having a forge set up outside the building so that the public can watch the master craftsmen at work. “That’s a way we can do something outside and be cool, no matter what the pandemic is doing!” she laughs.
Toward the rear of the retail space lies a small gallery showing recent work by an ever-changing lineup of local artists. On the day I visit, the gallery is displaying the works by the Art Department, a Portland nonprofit located just down Congress Street from Maine Craft Portland dedicated to helping Maine artists with developmental and intellectual disabilities reach their creative potential. The artwork, themed around love, is beautiful, funny, and unexpected, with meticulously painted figures, boxes, and animals. Wing notes, “It’s just a great injection of color and enthusiasm.” Wolff concurs: “As Jaime was pointing out, look at the fine detail of painting. It’s really carefully executed.” In other words, it fits in perfectly with the work of the master craftspeople around it.
Handmade in Maine
Maine Craft’s mission statement vows to support “the livelihoods of individual craft artists while advancing the contemporary craft economy.” In practice, this means that there is something handmade to be found in the store for every shopper, in every price range, for every occasion. Looking around the space, the possibilities seem almost endless, so here are just a few of our suggestions.
• As we head into the season of weddings, consider a handcrafted gift rather than another set of sheets off the registry. A hand-turned illusion basket (wood carved and dyed to look like woven basketry) from Jeff Enck could become a family heirloom. Or choose a couple of lively earthenware platters from Rebecca May Verrill to adorn a couple’s table for years of meals to come.
• If you’re lucky enough to get invited to a lakeside or seaside cottage by friends, bring along a unique house gift. Elegantly simple mugs from Camden Clay Company fade from seafoam green to white and complement any decor, or a more whimsical octopus mug from AP Curiosities might make your hosts smile over their morning coffee.
• Been away at the lake or the ocean and worried your cat hates you now? Maine Craft Portland has an extensive selection of Dr. Pussum’s catnip toys to amuse and placate feline companions. Have a dog you need to please instead? Try a walk on a new leash made from lobster rope by WharfWarp.
• Treat yourself or a loved one to a pair of feather-light, laser-cut dangling earrings made by Ebenezer Akakpo with designs based on traditional symbols from his homeland of Ghana. If you’re looking for something smaller, J.E. Paterak’s tiny pinecone stud earrings fit the bill.