Unsung Hero: Christine Detroy, living outside the lines

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BRUNSWICK — “People don’t see what I see,” Christine Detroy said,  shortly after greeting a visitor to her art studio on the second floor of Fort Andross.

One look at the colorful creations that adorn her space confirmed the wisdom of her words.

Over there is a jacket made of colorful swatches of old draperies and discarded theatrical costumes. And there’s another. And another. Each one unique, different, compelling.

On the other side, several pillows sit on a shelf, featuring different vintage scenes. A tall piece of driftwood stands in a corner, a Popham Beach find converted into a stately sculpture. And there’s a hat with something snake-like curling up from the top. (Turns out it isn’t just “snake-like,” it’s an actual snakeskin.)

Here’s the deal: Every single thing in this space was created from something old or discarded, and crafted into something new and intriguing.

“I like things that are old and worn,” Detroy said. Her enthusiasm reflects her passion for converting life’s castoffs into art: “Isn’t that great?” “Don’t you love it?” And on and on.

Detroy, who’s sporting one of her own creations, isn’t being boastful. She seems to derive deep joy from the beauty all around, from the things most of us pass by with nary a thought.

And here’s the other deal: For more than 20 years, Detroy has labored at an occupation that belies her special talent: cleaning lady.

“I’ve been cleaning so long, I’m starting to get arthritis,” she said. “I can’t stand or kneel to vacuum so I kind of sit sideways, like the girl in (Andrew Wyeth’s painting,) ‘Christina’s World.’”

Detroy stresses that she isn’t your ordinary house cleaner. “I do it the old-style way, being thorough, taking my time. And I try to lift people’s spirits.” (Full disclosure: Detroy cleans two houses for my wife and me; and yes, she lifts our spirits.)

Where did this artist/house cleaner/hippie/philosopher come from? Well, Detroy’s is a long story, with stops in Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Connecticut, Florida, Canada and Maine. She succumbed, no surprise, to the allures of the hippie culture, and she did lots of soul-searching. Waitress jobs paid most of the bills.

She finally settled down to the extent this free spirit could ever settle down. “I got tired of moving around all the time and not solving my inner angst,” she said.

She found a partner, Tim, and became the mother of two sons, but her partner died in 2005. She’s bringing up the two boys, Maximum and Elijah.

Detroy discovered her love of fabrics and sewing early in life.

“I was always playing around with fabrics as a kid – layering, altering, making what I wanted to make for myself,” she explained. “With six brothers and no sisters, you don’t get a lot of hand-me-downs. My mother taught me to sew on a Singer Featherweight, a beautiful machine. There’s nothing like it.”

And there’s nothing like Detroy’s art or the myriad ways she encourages other people to make new art from old stuff.

She convinced the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick to host the Altered Couture Benefit Fashion Show in June. The sold-out event showcased the creations of 24 local artist-designer-recyclers, each of whom had to design and create a wearable outfit utilizing materials (not to exceed $30) from local stores for resources and inspiration. All proceeds went to ArtVan, a mobile arts therapy program.

Detroy plans to cut back on her housecleaning work and step up her artistic endeavors over the next few years, and she’s making good progress. She participates in Brunswick’s Second Friday art walks as well as the town’s summer crafts festival. Some stores around Mid-Coast Maine carry her unusual creations. And she’s working on a website for her business (Cosmic Couture) for etsy.com, a site created for people who want to buy or sell vintage items.

Detroy also introduced another artist with a studio in Fort Andross, a woman who is to old metal what Detroy is to old fabric. When I joked to the artist that Christine isn’t boring, the woman laughed and said, “She keeps things lively around here.”

Can there be a higher compliment?

Sidebar Elements

Brunswick artist Christine Detroy is passionate about making things from found fabrics and objects on the beach. “I come in here to play,” she says of her Fort Andross studio.

Unsung Heroes

Part of a twice-monthly series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: [email protected]