Where have all the artists gone?

Portland’s creative exodus gives Southern Maine’s mill towns a new lease on life
By SARA DONNELLY  |  August 9, 2006

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Artists continue to flee Portland for the southern mill towns
Nancy Kureth is lost in the Biddeford mills again. We ascend a flight of stairs, wander down and back along a nondescript hallway lined with dusty wood planers and trash bags filled to bursting, and end up standing, confused, in a cavernous room with sunlight shining through giant windows, wondering where the exit is. The mill is silent except for the distant buzz of a table saw. At the far end of the hallway, a man on a scooter glides out of nowhere and swiftly disappears again.

“Shoot. This always happens to me,” says Kureth. She’s holding the same half-filled glass of water that she has been for the past 20 minutes of our tour through the mill district’s crude studios — which currently house hundreds of woodworkers, painters, writers, musicians, and light-industrial workers.

Kureth, herself a mixed-media artist, works from a studio on Alfred Street, in a place that used to be her coffee shop and gallery, Collette’s Cup. But if she wasn’t working there, she’d probably be working here in the Lincoln Mill. Or in the Bugbee Brown building next door. Or in the Riverdam Millyard across the way.

In addition to her career as an artist, Kureth is also the first-ever staff member of Biddeford and Saco’s first-ever Twin Cities Creative Council, and it’s her personal passion, and her job, to market and protect what she calls the area’s “secret” arts scene.

By way of spilling the beans, she’s planning a big event in October to showcase artists from the “Twin Cities” (of Biddeford and Saco) and beyond. The event, she tells me, will be called “Milling About,” “and something [more] about ‘keeping the thread,’ I don’ t know yet.” Milling About . . . Whatever (a reprise of the first Milling About event, successfully held last year) will take place in an as-yet-unreserved spot in one of these mills joining Biddeford and Saco together in a labyrinth of brick tunnels and musty air along the Saco River. Kureth, originally from Portland, Oregon, moved here six years ago after Portland (Maine) and Kennebunk became too expensive for her to work or live in.

“Where are the stairs?” she says, wandering. She finds them finally and sighs. Just before we descend to the exit, Kureth stops. She suddenly becomes animated, tossing her red hair and widening her eyes in goofy, self-aware gravitas.

“It’s scary sometimes. You could, literally, get lost in these. Some of them are connected. You’ll think you’re in one and then you’ll look out a window and realize, somehow, you ended up in a different one.”

Here in the mill buildings, the 24 of which are clustered on 50 acres of land which is part Biddeford (population 22,072) and part Saco (population 18,230), there’s an arts scene that will eventually rival Portland’s. Seriously.

And on the western side of Portland, the same could be said about Westbrook’s Dana Warp Mill and its burgeoning arts cluster beside the still-operational Sappi Fine Paper Mill. Then there’s the mill building in Brunswick and, newly, those in Sanford, which have attracted artists looking for cheap studio space. Many of those artists used to live and work in Portland.

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