BRUNSWICK — Jane Chu, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was in Maine this week, and she came to Brunswick Wednesday for the finale of her tour of the state’s art scene.
Chu was invited by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and also visited Portland, Waterville, and Lewiston.
The day in Brunswick started at Spindleworks, the nonprofit art center tucked away in a converted house on Lincoln Street.
With 10 professional artists on staff as teachers, Spindleworks offers art supplies, studio, and gallery space to artists with disabilities. It was started in 1978 and is a program of the Independence Association of Brunswick.
Program manager Liz McGhee and supervisor Brian Braley led Chu, and Maine Arts Commission Executive Director Julie Richard, through the maze of studios where artists were painting canvases, weaving fabrics, and throwing pots.
In a little room on the second floor, Theresa Labrecque wove a sea of colored yarn on a loom.
“Oh, I just love it,” she said. “I love weaving, I enjoy weaving, it makes me relax in the morning.”
Labrecque said she comes in every day and weaves from 9-10 a.m.
“I learned how (to weave) in about 2 1/2 minutes,” she said. “They told me that’s a record.”
Back on the first floor, Chu and Richard toured Spindlework’s Whatnot Gallery, where artists sell their work. Three-quarters of the profits go to the artists, with the remainder going back to the program for supplies.
Braley said it’s in the gallery where the magic happens.
“What’s it like when someone sells their first art piece … it’s transcendent,” he said. “(It’s a) moment for when people see (the artists) for their abilities … not their disabilities.”
McGhee echoed Braley’s point.
“Art can serve as an equalizer,” she said. “These adults are artists and part of the community.”
Richard, of the Maine Arts Commission, which receives annual funding from the NEA, called the program “a jewel in the crown of Maine.”
Spindleworks recently received $2,500 from MAC to support programming that connects their artists with other professional artists in the area.
McGhee said these kinds of grants keep Spindleworks alive.
She said private grants are becoming increasingly important in sustaining the program’s mission, because money from the state is drying up.
“We stand to lose 35 percent of our funding” due to cuts in MaineCare, she said Wednesday.
“We’ve been loud in the political realm this spring,” she said, often advocating for the program through Pingree, who invited Chu to come this week and told her about Spindleworks.
Chu offered to connect McGhee and Braley to a staffer at the NEA who specializes in advocating for programs that make art accessible to people with disabilities.
“Talk to as many people as you can,” she said.
“(We want) to highlight bright spots that are out there … this is one of them,” she added.
After the tour of Spindleworks, Chu and Richard travelled up Maine Street to visit the International Music Festival at Bowdoin College, and the NEA-supported photo exhibit “A Mind of Winter” by Abelardo Morell, at the Bowdoin Museum of Art.
Before driving back to Portland to catch a flight, Chu reflected on her time in Brunswick with Richard.
She said she was impressed by “talking to community members, and them saying how appreciative they are of things like the International Music Festival coming to retirement homes.”
“Art is playing more roles now than ever before,” she added.
One of the things Chu and Richard are taking with them is a pamphlet of stories written by Spindleworks artists.
The book contains testimonies like one written by Earl Black, who wrote “I dream about the colors … the next day I come and put them in.
“I’m glad I can work at Spindleworks. It keeps me out of trouble. At night I dream about the colors, just the colors. Yeah … nothing else, just my art.”
Chu said the NEA is creating a story bank on arts.gov, to showcase voices like Black’s on a national platform.
Places like Spindleworks “show how meaningful art can be … it can be transformational to the economy, to learning, to health and human development,” she said.
“People are earning and growing themselves … we think that’s a winner,” she added.
Theresa Labrecque weaves every morning at Spindleworks’ studio space in Brunswick. Making art “makes me feel free,” she said Wednesday, Aug. 12.
Spindleworks Program Manager Liz McGhee, left, walks Maine Arts Commission Executive Director Julie Richard and National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Chu through the Brunswick program’s Whatnot Gallery.