The Center for Maine Craft

Maine’s cultural highway rest stop

Article and photos By Ramona du Houx

February 13th, 2009 

The Maine Craft Center off I95 in West Gardiner, the first craft center of its kind in the U.S.A.

Over the holidays many travelers on Interstate 295 in West Gardiner stopped at the brand new service plaza which offers what most travelers expect, restaurants, rest rooms, fuel, and tourist information. But many were pleasantly surprised by something unique and new to Maine — the Center for Maine Craft.

The Center is operated by the Maine Crafts Association (MCA) and is a showcase and retail outlet for hundreds of Maine artisans.

“So far sales have been phenomenal,” said Chris Krauss, former owner of the successful Sugarwood Gallery in Farmington and now manager of the Center. “So many people from Maine have come in and are so proud at what has been accomplished. They love the fact that we are selling Maine music, food, books, and crafts. There is something available for every pocketbook, and there is tremendous pride that the entire state is represented. Visitors to the state are amazed and keep saying, ‘Why isn’t this everywhere?’”

Artwork and crafts from close to 300 Maine businesses in a variety of media, including ceramics, glass, wood, fiber, and photography, are on display along with Made in Maine food products, jewelry, personal care products, and books. The Center will also host rotating exhibitions of art from members of the Maine Crafts Consortium, which includes such organizations as Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Maine Fiberarts, and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

The goal of the Center is to raise awareness of Maine crafts and help Maine artisans gain wider exposure.

“We are drawing visitors that have come specifically to see this, and then they have a meal and relax. And because we are a rest stop, we have people who would never consider going into a gallery, but they come in here and really appreciate Maine’s craftspeople. Today I had some truckers come in and buy gifts, and they are spreading the word,” said Krauss.

Mary Spencer, a potter from Litchfield, worked on the craft curriculum for the Eastern Maine Community College and was involved in MCA and decided to take a part-time job at the Center. Her pottery has a graceful strength; she praises the Center. “It’s part of the creative economy for Maine. It showcases artists, giving us incentive and hope that our products and pieces are recognized,” said Spencer. “Before now, most of us had to wait until summer to sell to tourists. It’s nice to see local people come and appreciate what we are doing. It’s a positive thing for all of us, and I’m very excited by it.”

“The beauty of the shop here is that it gives us the opportunity to focus on our art at home, so we don’t have to travel around selling our work as much. The more time we have to work on art the better, the more we can create,” said Thea Demitre who needs a flexible schedule to be an artist. When Demitre was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, her world as a teacher came to an end; now art is a therapy that helps her balance her life. She creates at odd hours, depending when she has the energy. “Art really brought me back to life.

Tracy Michaud Stutzman and Lynn M. Thompson began work on this project early in 2006, when a group of the major craft organizations in the state convened to find ways they could raise awareness of the role craft plays in the culture and economy of Maine. At the time, Stutzman, a member of the Creative Economy Council, was executive director of the Maine Highlands Guild and Thompson was serving on the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Crafts Association, and was executive director of the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts.

As a result of their work, a new Maine Crafts Association was created through a merger of the 25-year-old MCA and The Maine Highlands Guild.

Mary Spencer, who works at the art center, holds up a piece of her own pottery.
Mary Spencer, who works at the art center, holds up a piece of her own pottery.

After the craft organizations created a consortium to carry out its plan in March 2006, Tracy met with Governor Baldacci to lay out for him what we wanted to achieve. “The governor expressed particular interest in the Center, because it would provide a highly visible retail venue for Maine craftwork, so he suggested that we approach the Maine Turnpike Authority with the idea that they include just such a space in the new service plaza they were planning to build in West Gardiner,” said Thompson. “We worked directly with them, and the Maine Office of Tourism to develop the plan for the Center for Maine Craft. At the same time, we worked with MCA members and craft artists, businesses and organizations around the state to find out their needs and to elicit help with the design of the Center.”

The governor said that he was pleased with the Center of Maine Crafts and with collaboration of the different departments and agencies to create a service plaza that replaces two DOT and two MTA facilities. “This collaboration is how we achieve unique projects in Maine. The center is a wonderful addition to Maine’s creative economy,” said Governor Baldacci.

Artisans across the state still lack outlets for their products. Bringing them collectively together in centers like the one in West Gardiner helps the artisans get their crafts to the marketplace, while advertising the uniqueness of Maine. Some hope that this center is just the beginning.

Artisans across the state still lack outlets for their products. Bringing them collectively together in centers like the one in West Gardiner helps the artisans get their crafts to the marketplace, while advertising the uniqueness of Maine. Some hope that this center is just the beginning.

“The reality that we have a centrally located place, which is bringing so much pride to artisans, the community, and our visitors, is what needed to happen. We will become a standard-bearer for other states, as well as Maine,” said Krauss. “I can see a day where every single rest stop will have a craft center, each one emphasizing a different craft specialty, like pottery, wood, glass, or fiber arts.”

Artists can choose whether to have their work purchased wholesale, or they can put their work in on consignment, in which case they receive 60 percent of the retail price when the work sells. All work in the Center for Maine Craft is juried. The next one will be in January or February 2009.

The portion of sales received by the Center goes to pay operational expenses and to support the educational programs and artist services of the Maine Crafts Association.

“We are supporting just under 300 businesses from all across the state. This is real economic development. Everything here is functional art, which makes art more practical,” said Krauss. “The uniqueness of the work speaks volumes; when people come here, they can take home with them a little piece of Maine.”

The 2,500-square-foot gallery and shop is located where Interstate 295 and the Maine Turnpike in West Gardiner.

Artists can find out about upcoming juries and their requirements on the MCA Web site: www.mainecrafts.org.