Artists find the Maine attraction in Portland

Artists find the Maine attraction in Portland – city beat Portland, Maine

Debbie Hagan

The smell of fresh fish, the taste of salt air, the bellow of ship horns and the sight of waves beating against the jagged shore–this is Maine, the kind of place where an artist’s imagination runs wild. Certainly Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Robert Henri thought so, creating some of their best work here. Artists continue to gravitate to this state, in part, because of its painterly beauty and, in part, because of its famous art schools, such as Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Maine Photographic Workshops and Watershed Center for Ceramics.

It only makes sense that Portland–the state’s largest city–serves as the hub for these artists. Plus, it’s a very inviting city.

Government figures show that Portland has 66,000 residents, but it’s more like 230,000 if you factor in the neighboring communities. That number swells to two million in the summer, when tourists vacation and shop as well as attend Portland’s many downtown events, such as the Old Port Festival, held during the first week of June, or the WCSH 6 Sidewalk Art Festival, held in early August. The sidewalk festival, now in its 38th year, attracts 300 regional and national artists–not to speak of the 50,000 visitors.

In spite of the hubbub, Portland retains a small-town, yesteryear charm. Visitors can easily wander in and out of Victorian brownstones and down its cobblestone streets without feeling intimated or lost. And there is much art to see in this neatly compact city. There are at least 24 fine art galleries in the area, not including numerous crafts shops and artist’s studios.

Portland boasts two side-by-side art districts. The older and better known of the two is Old Port, an eight-block wedge of Victorian red-brick buildings that include the waterfront. Rebuilt in 1866 after a devastating fire leveled the area, today Old Port is an eclectic blend of art shops, restaurants and fanciful one-of-a-kind stores. Among them is Abacus, an eye-popping shop filled to the rafters with clever American crafts, jewelry and folk art furniture.

Perched on the outer edge of Old Port is Greenhut Galleries, which focuses on Maine fine art painters. When Peggy Greenhut Golden originally opened her business 25 years ago, she sold posters and prints next to t-shirt, incense and candle shops. Now, Greenhut Galleries and the Old Port area have vastly matured. High-end hotels like the Portland Regency Hotel offer luxury accommodations that attract sophisticated out-of-towners.

Greenhut does attract tourists, who make up approximately one third of its clientele. However, the rest are locals. “We have always had a sophisticated art-buying community,” said Mary Donohue, Greenhut’s assistant director. “We are not suffering from any economic downturn,” said Donohue. “We had our best April we’ve ever had in business–and it was tax month.”

Michael Rancourt owns Jameson Gallery & Frame Shop and Jameson Estate Collection, both of which are in Old Port. The Estate Collection specializes in 19th and early 20th century American paintings, watercolors and photographs, while the regular gallery features works by contemporary Maine artists or artists who live elsewhere but paint in Maine. “Maine has always been an art destination since the mid 19th century,” said Rancourt who represents artist Thomas Paquette, a Minnesota-born artist who lives in Pennsylvania, but sojourns to Maine. His moody sky and sea paintings are on exhibit until the end of this month.

Some of the nation’s top glass artists pan be seen in Stein Gallery, another Old Port landmark. Now in its 18th year, Stein exhibits work by more than 100 glass artists, including Douglas Ohm and John Leighton.

“We’re a national gallery, so we see people from all over the country,” said Anne Stein, who owns the gallery with her husband, Philip Stein. “People come here looking for us. Portland has a growing reputation as an art destination.” In fact, some visitors have stayed on permanently. Portland’s population has grown 10 percent over the last decade.

As the city has grown and the down-town area has evolved as an arts destination, the Portland Museum of Art has likewise earned a national reputation for its collection of Maine artists’ work, as well as its European collection. In an award winning building designed by I.M. Pei, the museum features work by John Singer Sargent, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley and Andrew Wyeth. A year ago, the museum renovated and converted one its older wings into a new Homer Gallery.

Many other museums and fine art galleries have chosen to move in next to the Portland museum; thus, the area has been dubbed the Arts District. Here visitors can find the Museum of African Tribal Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA and the Center for Marine History.

In a flatiron building facing the museum is the five-year-old Hay Gallery. Owner Linda Laughlin shows contemporary paintings, photography and sculpture. Most of the work is by regional artists, and exhibits change monthly. Laughlin said she organizes openings to coincide with Portland’s monthly First Friday Artwalks, and often the city organizes musical groups to perform concurrently with the art walks.

“A lot of things just come together in Portland,” said Stein. “It has an urban feel. It’s a sophisticated little city, but it’s still personal. It reminds me of Greenwich Village when I lived there back in the ’60s. The scale is just lovely. Everything is walkable. You feel in touch with the surroundings and the people around you.”


* Abacus, (207) 772-0880

* Gallery Seven, (207) 761-7007

* Greenhut Galleries, (207) 772-2693

* Hay Gallery, (207) 773-2513

* Jameson Gallery & Frame, (207) 772-5522

* Museum at Portland Head Light, (207) 799-2661

* Portland Museum of Art, (207) 775-6148

* Stein Gallery, (207) 772-9072

* WISH 6 Sidewalk Art Festival, (207) 828-6666

BY DEBBIE HAGAN ABN Contributing Editor

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