“What we create in our minds, build with our hands, and offer to the world – are pieces of our being, of our very soul.” – Laurie Adams
The allure of the Maine land, its glorious summers and hushed wintry beauty, fosters an unusually fertile ground for the contemporary craft artist. The rhythms of nature resound here, mirroring the daily cadences of pounding clay, sanding wood, weaving baskets. Whether blacksmithing or spinning, what sustains the Maine craft artist is a deep connection to the environment.
Several Maine crafts can be traced to the state’s strong Native American roots; others recall early colonial days and the needs of its agricultural, lumbering and seafaring economies. The legacy of these traditions can be found in Maine’s continuing sense of independence, endowing makers with an abiding desire to do for oneself and an assurance that compels craft artists to create works of uncommon sophistication and exceptional construction.
Maine also has excellent raw materials- wood for furniture, gems for jewelry, brown ash for baskets, fibers for spinning and weaving. While not every artist uses native substances, all rely on another Maine resource: a work ethic that places great value on craft and community. Maine artists thrive on the respect given the work of the hand, forming a group that continually opens itself to newcomers.
The lineage of Maine craft extends to the first Native Americans. Tool makers, canoe builders, carvers, the native heritage is most visible among today’s basket makers who weave brown ash and sweet grass. Later, colonial settlers brought work in iron, wool, clay and glass. Papermakers still speak of one early mill so desperate for rags that it imported mummies from Egypt just for the fiber wrapping. Most historic echoes are more lively, however. Fiber artists connect to colonial forebears as they sit at spinning wheels or weave on large wooden floor looms. Woodworkers link to Puritan simplicity and the streamlined Shaker style of the early 19th century. Maine’s clay work originates in the banks of its own rivers, which once yielded the material for bricks and butter molds.
Maine glass blowers hark back to Portland Glass Works. Better known for pressed glass, the enterprise also created hand blown wares during its one intense decade of operation, from 1863 to 1873. Look around: the work of the hand is integral to the Maine landscape. Old farmhouses, wooden boats, antique windows and wrought iron retain the fluid beauty of Maine’s traditional arts. Tea sipped from pottery mugs, treasures stored in brown ash baskets, the sun glinting through stained glass enhance the pleasure of life here.
We can trace today’s contemporary craft artists to the years after World War II, when a small but solid craft movement spread across the nation. In Maine, weavers, tool makers and potters flocked to The Kingdom, a hamlet at the foot of Haystack Mountain, near Augusta.
When a highway threatened the school, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts was moved to the edge of a Deer Isle cliff. For fifty years, artists from around the world have come to teach and study at Haystack. Falling in love with the landscape, more than a few lingered, adding to the state’s craft community.
While some artists currently working in Maine were born here, others came after realizing they could live anywhere- so why not a rambling farm or coastal perch?
In the 1970’s, the back-to-the-land movement brought a steady stream of settlers eager to learn about rural self-sufficiency. Many found their way to crafts, making their living from the work of the hand. Encouraging them all was the late Fran Merritt, Haystack director for twenty-six years.
Enthusiastic and welcoming, his belief in the potential of Maine’s craft industry bolstered many a fledgling operation. Later, lectures and workshops offered by the Maine Craft Association helped assure the excellence of Maine’s crafts, paving the way for a Maine presence on the national stage. More recently, the growth of the Maine College of Art and the establishment to the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and the Heartwood College of Art, have enhanced the statewide community of craft makers. But neither community nor environment dictate production.
Except for a high standard of quality and an inclination to simplicity, no one style typified Maine. Work found here can come from traditions as ancient as birch bark baskets, handspun fiber or forged metal. It can also be as avant garde as the use of Tyvek, a building material, in bookbinding, or the knitting of plastic bags for garments.
Through hard work, knowledge and experimentation, Maine craft artists have risen to the pinnacle of the national craft scene, becoming a major presence at the Smithsonian Craft show and other prestigious juried exhibitions.