Made in Maine
Words By Brian Shuff | Photos by Michael D. Wilson
A generation of artisans with fresh skills and a timeless work ethic breathes soul into the label “Made in Maine.”
Call it a rejection of convenience over quality. Call it an inevitable counterswing to the Instagramming and Twitterizing that bring to each aspect of life the obligation of a press release. Call it hipsterism gone airborne. Across the country, handcrafted, single-function items are having their day. Artisanal is in. No longer is it unthinkable to support oneself baking cupcakes, tanning leather, turning canoe paddles from blocks of pine, slinging soba noodles from a jerry-rigged delivery truck. The public—and younger public, in particular—is reeducating itself, both as makers and consumers, in the value of time-and-skill-intensive products. In the process, they’re getting a taste for Maine.
“Customers ask daily which of our pieces are made in Maine,” says Jared Levin. Since 2014, he and his wife, Jennifer, have owned and operated Chilton Furniture in Freeport, working with furniture makers from all over the state. “When we first took over, 27 percent of our furniture was made in Maine. Now we’re pushing 60 percent. It’s the demand.”
A demand, to be sure, that has spread—is spreading—beyond the forestry products of our heritage (i.e., furniture making since forever, and shipbuilding before that). Maine breweries now have national reputations. World-class artists in a variety of mediums are coming to paint, to sculpt, to photograph, to write. Bon Appétit, in August, named Portland the Restaurant City of 2018. The words “Made in Maine” have acquired a newfound cachet, and crackling in the air is a (cautiously optimistic) sense that if you want to make a go of it here, working with your hands, you can. In a state with little centralized industry, makers are becoming the industry.
No day job required.
To be clear: it takes work—profound quantities of it. No one splays out his or her wares and kicks back to a bonanza of compensation. New or established, the craftspeople who thrive here are hustling, to serve a receptive (enough) community, yes, but also because they see in Maine a chance to use their talents for sustenance on their own terms. This is the real payoff, the soul payoff, if you like. No superior, no clock, no deadlines but those self-imposed. It’s a shot at the self-reliance cooked into our region’s—and country’s—mythology. “It’s a privileged life,” says Peter Korn, author of Why We Make Things and Why It Matters. “Though I don’t necessarily mean privileged economically.”
Freedom is the privilege. Maine’s makers are a fiercely independent bunch—pragmatic, problem-solving, protectors and trusters of reputation and word, and devoted, most crucially, to bringing the fullness of their abilities to the completion of each task, whether honing the ratio of bitters in a cocktail recipe or throwing another bowl to get the order shipped inside of contract. For these people, fulfillment springs less from commercial excess and more from a certain autonomy, work done well for work done well’s sake. It’s an ethos that perhaps delivers some account as to the swelling manna afforded the “Made in Maine” label. The qualities that define the craftsperson—and in turn the objects she creates—are qualities echoed by Maine itself.
In their sun-warmed Freeport showroom, Jennifer runs a hand up the back of an authentic Shaker chair. “The spacing in the slats is one of the things that’s so special,” she says. Much of Chilton’s inventory is based on original Shaker designs, many from Sabbathday Lake near Poland, the world’s last active Shaker community. “There is a very deliberate, very precise spacing of the slats. Each one is adjusted again and again until they follow right up along the spine.” This insistence on getting it right—not almost right, but right—is Maine to the core. One thing Mainers are not is corner cutters, and while “handcrafted” might feel like a craze elsewhere, in Maine it feels like confirmation.
As more artisans, chefs, jewelry makers, poets, chocolatiers, etc. set up shop in this northern place, there is much grumbling (some of it just) about the rate and reach of so much change. To whom does this new Maine belong? But with old mills becoming artist studios, it is impossible not to at least recognize a generational handoff. The original makers of shoes and paper and ships are indeed gone, but this new class of makers is participating in that which Peter claims all craftspeople participate: “a conversation flowing through time.” Peter himself came to Rockport in 1993 to found the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a school that now sees more than 400 students a year, who come to Maine from all over the world to study a trade as ageless as man’s desire to sit. “The things one seeks in craft are similar to the things people seek here,” Peter says. “A more natural way of living you could call it. They come to it now more hungry than ever.” From the Center’s library where he sits, one can see a slice of the Messler Gallery, enough to glimpse a sampling of the current show—a mounted trio of otter-tail oars, a gorgeous glass-top coffee table, a violin. Peter holds up his smartphone but leaves the screen black. “The attention this object demands is the exact opposite of the attention required to practice a craft.”
It’s a lifestyle as much as a career, and very likely this is the draw. Again, Jennifer Levin invokes the Shakers: “They believed in perfecting life on earth,” she says, “‘Hands to work; hearts to God.’ It’s not just for making lots of money. Maine is for people who want to have a balanced life.” The Levins would know. They traded New York for Scarborough in this very spirit.
It isn’t for everyone. But it can be done—is being done, all over the state. For Maine, this cultural tilt towards a more symbiotic relationship between life and work is perhaps a realm in which old meets new more plainly than might be evident elsewhere. In the coming installments of “Made in Maine,” we’ll turn to a variety of makers working today in this space of change, those inventing the state anew while inescapably participating in its past. Are there cheaper ways to do what they’re doing? Certainly. Are there faster ways? God, yes. Are there better ways? It depends on what you consider “better.” Let’s ask them.