SOUTH PORTLAND – In an area like Portland, where Buy Local is not a slogan but a way of life, it’s easy to ignore the mall. If not for the Apple store, there might be little reason for folks like me to go out there.

Things are different this summer, thanks to a nifty new partnership between mall management and the Center for Maine Craft. Through Labor Day, the center is operating a store in the mall featuring the work of about 200 Maine artists and crafts makers.

In addition, the center organizes the Creative Common in the mall’s central court area, featuring iconic Maine arts organizations and art motifs. Between the two locations, mall visitors can browse or buy Maine-made baskets, ceramics, jewelry and furniture.

There are art goods made with fiber, glass, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, stone and wood.

The craft center’s presence in the mall represents an outgrowth of its store at the West Gardiner Service Plaza on the Maine Turnpike. Since November 2008, the center has operated a handsome retail outlet at the turnpike stop that promotes the work of Maine’s creative sector.

Last year, it expanded to include a retail presence during the holiday season at the mall in Bangor. And now its retail footprint reaches to South Portland and Maine’s largest mall.

The Center for Maine Craft and the Creative Common at the mall are the latest retail efforts managed by the Maine Crafts Association, based in Dover-Foxcroft.

The retailing will extend farther south later this month. On Aug. 20, the center will operate a one-day show and sale at the northbound turnpike service plaza in Kennebunk, and will repeat the effort Aug. 28 in the southbound service plaza across the highway.

But the summer-long focus is on the mall. “A lot of tourists come to the mall, which is a surprise to me,” said Sadie Bliss, who manages the Center for Maine Craft store. “People get off cruise ships and come to the mall.”

Most encouraging, they ask for Maine products. Tourists want an authentic piece of Maine to bring home with them, not some junky trinket.

Price points at the mall store range from a few bucks to several hundred dollars.

“The merchants at the mall were saying that people were coming in the summertime and looking for locally made crafts,” said Jessica Tomlinson, director of marketing and public relations for the Maine College of Art. The college is part of the Creative Common, where several MECA grads have work for sale.

“I don’t know about you, but I think of the mall as much more about chain stores and mass production. But because of the tourism traffic in the summer, people want a piece of Maine,” she said.

“For whatever reason, these people are not coming to downtown Portland. They are getting off the boat and getting on a bus and going to the mall.”

For MECA, participating in this retail experiment was the proverbial no-brainer. It not only gives the Portland college a presence in the popular mall, it gives its grads a chance to test market their work.

So far, the big winner has been Andrew Cook, an ’05 graduate. He has a graphic design line called Lobstering Is an Art, a series of contemporary lobster designs. It’s affordable, quirky and well-done lobster art, unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Bliss said Cook’s designs have been the most popular items handled by the Center for Maine Craft at the mall.

Cook, 36, is a Portland native. His uncle is a lobsterman, and he’s always respected lobstermen for their hard work. The idea of a high-design lobster line came to him while he was toiling away at a marketing agency in New Hampshire.

He went to work right out of college, but lately was feeling that something was missing in his creative life. Last year, he offered a few of his lobster designs for MECA’s annual holiday sale. His prints sold exceptionally well, and he began thinking about getting out of the corporate world.

He asked himself the question we all eventually ask ourselves: “Am I happy?”

His answer was no. He liked the paycheck, and he drew some satisfaction from his work. But he desired the opportunity to create his own work. So he quit, moved back to Maine and established his business, Lobstering Is an Art.

Right about that same time, providence intervened. Tomlinson contacted him to ask if he’d like to participate in the mall retail experiment.

Cook takes the basic shape of a lobster and creates the body with unlikely components, such as clam shells, flowers, buoys and sea glass. His designs are colorful, funky and wholly unconventional.

This summer, he’s been selling so many prints he can barely keep up. He’s got about 75 different designs, and adds more all the time. To acknowledge his debt to his uncle and all the other hardworking Maine lobstermen, he is donating 10 percent of his profits to the lobster industry.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give back to the lobstering community,” he said. “I was born and raised in Maine, and I wanted to design lobsters differently than you typically see. I wanted something out of the box, and something that would be marketable. I wanted to challenge myself and see how many ways I could design the lobster — and also donate money back to the community.

“It’s challenging, but totally rewarding. It’s been a great project.”

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

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