MACHIAS — Kehben Grier unlocks a side door to the old five-and-dime building in downtown Machias and bounds up the stairs to the third floor. She leads a visitor past construction debris to a large central room with walls covered by photographs and draped in heavy curtains.

A chalkboard in one corner documents the principles of the Beehive Design Collective, the arts organization that Grier helps organize: “Address systematic issues & historical context.” “Say what needs to be said w/o stereotypes.” “Connect human & animal experience.”

A table topped with burning candles and dozens of spent ink pens occupies another corner, as a sort of memorial to work completed. And dominating the room is a wall-length drawing, 5 feet tall and 9 feet long, clipped to a heavy easel.

In remarkable detail, Mesoamérica Resiste! illustrates the globalization of the Americas, focusing on resistance to infrastructure projects that affect local economies and communities across Central and South America.

It’s highly political and feels out of place in this small community tucked along the Machias River in far eastern Maine. Comprising a few dozen self-described “tree-hugger kids” from around the country, the Beehive is an anomaly among arts groups in Maine. It makes posters about issues that are important in Mexico, Colombia and Panama – places far from Maine – but uses the money it makes from distributing the posters around the world to invest in the town it calls home.

“Making really compelling art about global affairs enables us to fix things in Washington County,” said Grier, who describes herself as the collective’s Queen Bee. “I think that a lot of people here are not sure what we do, but they know we’re doing good.”

Because of the successful marketing of the Mesoamérica Resiste! poster and others like it over the past decade, the collective has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the old Grange Hall in town, rebuild a dance pavilion along Bad Little Falls and help plan Machias’ 250th anniversary party.

Next up is the conversion of the third floor of the 1930s five-and-dime building into studios and workspace for local artists. The collective also is making plans to open a community kitchen that will serve meals made from ingredients grown locally.

Grier has a larger vision, of making downtown Machias more friendly for Washington County’s elderly residents by improving the sidewalks and store entrances for people who use wheelchairs or are unsteady on their feet, especially during the long winters.

‘THEY ARE EXTREMELY UNIQUE’

With an annual budget of about $200,000, the Beehive is a nonprofit that insists on paying taxes to maintain favor with those who might otherwise look at it unfavorably. All of its members are volunteers, and none takes a paycheck. Some live in Machias, in a historic building on Court Street that the collective bought in 2005, though members are scattered across the country.

Last year, the collective launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign with a goal of $36,000. It raised nearly $120,000. More than 3,000 people donated in exchange for copies of posters and other artwork created by the collective’s worker bees.

“Everybody wants something handmade by us,” Grier said.

So great was the demand that the collective turned parts of two floors of its Court Street hive into an order fulfillment center, and the Bees spent most of the winter scrambling to fill requests.

In recent months, the group has secured $100,000 in grants from the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Community Foundation, to be paid over three years. The Beehive will use that money to renovate the top floor of the former five-and-dime store downtown, among other projects.

“They are extremely unique,” said Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. “I am incredibly impressed by what they have been able to do in Machias over the past 10 years and how they have integrated within the community. They have mobilized Machias and are leading the community revitalization efforts there. Their mission is not arts-based, but they use art to get their message across.”

A PARTNER IN FOSTERING GOODWILL

Though they are sometimes viewed with curiosity, the members of the collective are beloved in this town because of the work they do for residents, said Susan Corbett, CEO of the Machias-based Internet provider Axiom Technologies.

“They give wholly,” Corbett said. “There is no ulterior motive. There is a pureness about them. They just give unselfishly.”

Corbett bought the old five-and-dime building two years ago to house her company. She spent a year fixing the bottom two floors, but lacked a clear vision for the third floor.

Some people suggested apartments, others office space.

Instead, Corbett turned it over to the Beehive rent-free, with a lifetime tenancy agreement. It was her version of a pay-it-forward campaign, and the Beehive is an ideal partner to foster goodwill, she said.

By making the space available, she hopes to spread a model of business and opportunity to create what she calls “a strong, self-sufficient and mindful integrity to the downtown” that boosts morale in an “altruistic manner.”

Members of the collective will use their carpentry skills to renovate the top floor so the building can function as an arts incubator.

GRANGE PROJECT UNITES COMMUNITY

When the collective arrived in town in the early 2000s, Corbett said, its members were viewed cautiously. The attitude seemed to be, “The hippies are invading us,” she said. “They dress different. They look different. They have dreadlocks.”

But Maine is accepting of alternative lifestyles, and the worker bees won the town over by doing what they said they would do, said Sharon Mack, executive director of the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. They use their skills as artists to improve the lives of their friends and neighbors, she said.

Because of that, the Bees have endeared themselves.

“We get a lot of visitors here in the summer, and some folks look at the Bees kind of funny,” Mack said. “We get very defensive of them. They are a key part of this community.”

The Machias Valley Grange Hall was falling apart when the Beehive bought it from the State Grange in 2001 for $32,000, paid over four years. With volunteers and money raised through art projects, the group systematically went through the building and restored it for its centennial celebration in August 2004.

The Beehive owns the building and pays all taxes and upkeep, but has turned it back to the Grange and the community for use as a public gathering place.

On the night of the ceremony marking the project’s completion a decade ago, the Grange hosted its first big dance party in years. That dance has evolved into the Black Fly Ball, held every August as part of the town’s annual blueberry festival. The ball has become the centerpiece of the festival, bringing members of the collective together with longtime residents and summer visitors.

That mingling of cultures pleases Grier, because it means the collective has become a real part of the community. That bodes well for the long-term health of the Beehive and the projects it wants to tackle.

CREATIVITY FEEDS SOCIAL CHANGE

Grier came to Maine in 1997 to exhibit her mosaic artwork at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. She made her way Down East, attracted by the rugged granite coast, and decided to stay.

A self-taught artist who didn’t complete high school, Grier joined protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., the next spring. She made posters and banners, using her skills as an artist to spread the message of the protesters.

She began the Beehive Design Collective as a way to bridge her love of creativity with her passion for social change. She sees the work in Machias as shedding light on global issues while achieving local change.

That is what brought Daphne Loring to Machias in November, attracted by the Beehive manifesto, “which meshes with my interests,” she said. “I am super-excited about using art for education. I support grass-roots movements for social change, and I appreciate the commitment to local work.”

Loring, 34, attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where she studied the interface of globalization and local community resiliency, art and social change.

As a member of the Beehive, she may stuff envelopes one day, work on a poster the next and drive drywall screws the day after that. She appreciates that everyone in the collective is willing to do whatever is needed for the larger goal of improving life for residents of Washington County, while spreading a message about international globalization.

“We live with a challenging history in a very challenging world in very challenging times,” she said. “I like the Beehive because it teaches us how to live ethically, how to draw on our cultural roots and how to live in a community of mutual aid and in solidarity.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes