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The art of making art

In a city filled with creative people, where do they purchase their supplies?  For many artists (and students and parents and kids and teachers), the answer is Artist & Craftsman.

Located not on the peninsula but a short distance away, at Woodford’s Corner, Artist & Craftsman is northern New England’s largest art supplier.  From their Portland headquarters, they oversee a company with 18 stores spread from Seattle to Miami.  They carry more than 20,000 different products.  And yet….

“The main thing is, people come here because they like our stuff and they like our people.”  That’s General Manager Steve Kenney speaking.  I chatted with him and Assistant GM Tom Konieczo last week, to learn more about this bursting-at-the-seams establishment.  As we lounged on sofas, I kept glancing around at the towering shelves of frames, paints, easels, papers, markers, brushes, pencils, glitter, balsa wood, modeling clay, clear tar gel – clear tar gel? – and wondered what brings people through the doors.

“Well,” said Steve, ‘we’ve been around a while, and we’ve become something of an institution here.  Not just as a purveyor of eclectic merchandise, but also as a meeting place, a gathering spot for artists.”  Tom added, “What’s also interesting is that this store, the Portland one, is a testing ground for new products.  We test their quality, the customers’ reactions…often, you’re seeing things here before anyone else in the country does.”

So, with 18 stores nationwide, some in large metropolitan areas, how does the original store in Portland stack up?  “Actually,” noted Tom, “this store is our largest in terms of sales volume.  I think that says a lot about this community.”

“Another way to think of that,” said Steve, “is that we sell things that are well designed, that inspire creativity and that are scalable.  You can come in here if you’re a beginner just starting out.  Or you can come in here and find extremely sophisticated, high-end materials.”  When I asked just how arcane things could get, Steve told me about cobalt violet oil paint.  New to me, but evidently very popular and very expensive, it has a list price of $104 for a standard tube.

And then there’s the staff at Artist & Craftsman.  They’re so – well, they appear to be having fun. How is that possible, in a retail environment?  “Most of them are artists themselves,” noted Steve.  “They bring a certain energy, a passion to the place.  It’s very powerful: often they’re strong advocates, they feel excited about what’s all around them in the store.  You can’t manufacture that, it’s just part of who we are.”  The staff hangs around, too.  For instance, Steve has notched 20 years at Artist & Craftsman; Tom has 10.

The sense of fun, of the pure pleasure of art, extends across the store, from the labyrinthine layout to the comical signage to the ever-changing assortment of oddities on sale across from the counter.  So whether you’re in the market for mica powder or geodes or huge packages of blank newsprint or painting knives or handmade deckle edge paper or a T-square or a long-handle spongette (don’t ask), you’re bound to end up at Artist & Craftsman.  And while you’re there, go ahead, check out the sofa.  Nobody will mind.

Image: Brushes for sale!  Photo by the author.

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