August 27, 2013

Finding young Maine artists a cheap space to create

Creative Portland is taking on the challenge and plans a Web clearinghouse of potential studios.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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Metal fabricator John Nelson welds a basket at his Portland shop.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Metal fabricator John Nelson was forced to go off the Portland peninsula to a commercial building on Presumpscot Street in order to find affordable work space, and wishes he could be closer to his West End apartment.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Two old pairs of working gloves with holes in the fingers are nailed above the doorway. Makeshift work benches, vices, drill presses, tools, grinders and torches line the walls, and clamp lights provide much of the lighting.

On a recent afternoon, Nelson set a band saw in motion on a 6-inch-by-3½-inch iron I-beam, which would take about 20 minutes to cut through. During that time, he alternated between two torches to make iron baskets for Broadturn Farm.

As he lit the acetylene torch, a black puff of smoke wafted into the air. Sparks flew as he welded, and bits of metal scattered when he ground the rough edges. His hands and clothes were black with soot.

In the warehouse, William Sears manages Basecamp Studios. His nine studios, ranging from 100 square feet to 200 square feet, rent for $200 and $350 a month, including utilities and Internet.

It's mostly work space, but it's occasionally opened up to the public so artists can display their work

"It's a source of frustration for artists to not find space in (downtown) Portland," Sears said.


Creative Portland Corp. was formed in 2008 to help bolster the creative economy, which comprises artists and other professionals such as architects and technology companies.

Creative Portland recently released the results of a survey of 300 artists, conducted to assess the need for work, studio and living space. The survey, completed in June, showed that younger, less affluent artists are more inclined to come to Portland.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said there is a need for work space and that they would be willing to consider partial ownership of a condo or a cooperative. Eighty percent of artists younger than 35 and those earning less than $30,000 a year said the space must be affordable.

In 2011, Creative Portland teamed with Artspace, a national nonprofit that runs a network of 33 affordable arts facilities in 13 states, to look at opportunities for live-work space in Portland.

Artspace identified Portland's public works fleet facility, in a former general store in Bayside, and the potential development of properties owned by S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of the Portland Press Herald, in the Hampshire Street area as the best options.

Most of the surveyed artists indicated they would rather work outside their homes, and they preferred spaces larger than 100 square feet with natural light and high ceilings.

Work space can be very difficult for certain artists to find, especially those who use welding torches and oil paints, said City Councilor David Marshall, who owns the Constellation Gallery and is executive director of the Maine Artists Collective, a nonprofit group on Congress Street. The need for high ceilings and good ventilation often makes it difficult for artists to find space downtown, he said.

Creative Portland and the fledgling Creative Space hope to find spaces and help break down any barriers to using them.

For Blackburn and Hutchins, a lot is riding on the effort.

"Portland has a clear history of artists paving the way for the success of a given neighborhood," Hutchins said. "If we fail to acknowledge that and do what we can to carve out pieces of Portland for that particular type of activity, we may displace that altogether and this city begins to take on a whole different flavor."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or

Twitter: @randybillings 

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