BIDDEFORD – As Richard Allen walked down Main Street on Saturday, activity in the former Renys building drew him to the door.

Just after he walked in, sculptor Cheryl Lichwell asked him to pose for an artist’s demonstration. As Lichwell quickly molded facial features into a block of clay, Allen sat still and folks paused to watch.

“What do you think,” Lichwell asked, turning the sculpture toward Allen.

“I always wanted a twin,” he said, laughing as he examined the clay likeness of himself. “That’s awesome.”

Allen had stumbled onto a venue for the Handmade Holiday Craft Fair, organized by Engine, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering the arts in Biddeford, and Greg and Kristin Jamie, who own the music venue The Oak & The Ax.

Saturday’s event featured more than 60 artisans selling a variety of wares, from jewelry to pottery and functional art.

Lichwell, the sculptor, is just one of many artists who work out of studios in North Dam Mill. She moved to the area in January and has been trying to establish her business, Out of the Ark, which feature unique pieces with human and animal attributes.

During art walks or shows, Lichwell said, “It doesn’t matter if someone buys something, though that would be nice if they did. It’s the feedback I get from people that is really interesting.”

It is that networking and community aspect of the arts, as well as the economic culture of downtown, that Engine is trying to promote.

Trent Bell, a Biddeford photographer, explained Friday that the efforts of a creative community have a snowball effect. He shoots photos for Caleb Johnson, a Biddeford architect.

Tammy Ackerman, Engine co-founder and principal of North40Creative, uses Bell’s photos in designing Caleb Johnson Architects’ website.

The circle could continue a step further if Bell takes his photos to Scott Mullenberg, of Mullenberg Designs, who could create a professional portfolio of Bell’s work.

“(Biddeford has become) a great incubator for creativity,” said Johnson, who also serves as treasurer on Engine’s board of directors.

Johnson, Bell, Ackerman and Mullenberg all moved to Biddeford to be part of the creative community. Greg and Kristin Jamie moved from New York City this fall to start The Oak & The Ax, following the closure of Hogfarm Studio Annex, a similar venue in the same space.

“People we need in Biddeford are people who will create,” and embrace an entrepreneurial spirit, Johnson said.

Since Ackerman and Joshua Bodwell co-founded Engine earlier this year, the nonprofit has received a $30,000 grant from the Quimby Foundation and was part of the Biddeford Coalition to receive a $50,000 Creative Communities=Economic Development grant from the Maine Arts Commission.

Some of the grant money received by Engine is set aside specifically for finding space that gives the organization a presence on Main Street, Johnson said, which will help foster the organization’s mission.

The money will also bring Artspace Projects, the nation’s leading nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, to Biddeford in hopes of getting it interested in developing property for artists, Ackerman said.

Another goal of Engine is to market Biddeford to artists, making it attractive for them to live or work here by bringing people downtown, Ackerman said.

“Having a venue will allow for the exchange of creative ideas and energy. Artists spin off each other,” she said, and bringing more artists into the community will fuel the city’s creative economy.

As people filtered in and out of the old department store Saturday and meandered across the street to The Oak & The Ax where a handful of the vendors were located, it was clear the fair was accomplishing that goal.

Lauren Ostis and Gergana Rupchina are both artists from Portland that had tables set up in The Oak & The Ax.

Rupchina, a 1998 graduate of Maine College of Art, has been hearing about the Biddeford Artwalks, but has yet to attend one.

“It seems like Biddeford has revived itself a little bit,” she said.

Ostis participated in a small craft fair last year hosted by the former Hogfarm Studio Annex owners, Gil and Coco Corral, and was excited to be back again this year.

“Last year was a good turnout,” she said, adding that she has been hearing from a number of friends who attend evening performances at The Oak & The Ax that “Biddeford is pretty cool.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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