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SoPoSoHo? Artistic transformation continues in South Portland's Knightville neighborhood

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SoPoSoHo? Artistic transformation continues in South Portland's Knightville neighborhood

SOUTH PORTLAND — Knightville is going to the dogs after fetching a new member for the neighborhood's growing arts scene.

Painter Jim Williams of Mainely Labs Studio has leased space at 81 Ocean St. after leaving a gallery in downtown Portland last year.

He joins neighbors Studio 29A, home of four years to contemporary oil painter Britta Bruce, and the workshop of South Portland native Alaina Marie Harris, who has been crafting handmade wallets and bags from lobsterman bait-bag materials on Ocean Street since January. 

And across the street, artsy Cia Cafe, which opened a year ago, anchors the block between C and D streets with displays of clothing, jewelry, furniture and art by local artists and craftsmen. 

Williams, the newest member of the community, began painting nearly a decade ago after 32 years in the corporate world. He started painting Labrador retrievers after his own dog, Maddie, died unexpectedly.

"I said to myself, 'Someday, I'll do a painting of her,'" he said. Now he's done hundreds, selling for between $100 and $3,500 each, inspired by his beloved pet.

Williams lives in Cape Elizabeth with his wife Carol and 9-year-old Labrador retriever, Pirate.

He describes his work as pop art – bold color paintings with a minimalist style – and said his decision to move his studio to Knightville was an "a-ha" moment.

"Over the last year I've noticed Cia; I've been impressed with them and what they’ve done with that spot," he said.

Williams said he hopes to open his studio by the end of this month.

The space at 81 Ocean St. was until last month a home for Volunteers of America. Buzzy Trusiani, who also owns 79 Ocean St., bought the building, is renting other first-floor space to a marketing company, and has renovated the second and third floors for pet-friendly residential apartments. 

In addition to cheaper rents than in Portland, he said, he was drawn to Knightville's "neighborhood feel."

"It's got lots of potential," Trusiani said.

Harris, whose business, Alaina Marie, is one of his tenants at 79 Ocean St., said she enjoys the exposure her studio gets from being in an "up-and-coming area" of the city. In the six months she has been in Knightville, she said, she has placed her eco-chic products in 15 stores and just completed an order from retailer Anthropologie.

She said she loves that each spot on the street is committed to the "Maine-made thing."

"Everyone helps each other out," Harris said.

Jeannie Dunnigan, owner of Cia Cafe at 72 Ocean St., is credited by many in the neighborhood as a driving force behind Knightville's burst of artistic energy. 

Dunnigan is working with the city on an Aug. 9 event, the same day as the annual Art in the Park at Mill Creek, that will showcase the artists on the block. She also wants to establish a small-scale, monthly art event – similar to Portland's First Friday Art Walk – for studios in the area. 

Dunnigan and her family moved to Knightville from Salisbury, Massachusetts, almost two years ago. She said she is committed to making her neighborhood a local arts haven.

"It's got a great vibe," Dunnigan said. "It's peaceful, with a little buzz." 

Britta Bruce said she has pleasantly observed her neighborhood's evolution from her studio across the street, and believes Cia has been the "main force" in the area's artistic upswing.

Bruce said she is excited to participate in any local arts events Dunnigan puts together. 

Dunnigan said her vision for the area is South Portland's "SoHo," with a lively community of artists and restaurants.

"We're making Knightville a destination," she said. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.