If a visitor asks Meredith Alex what her MADgirl Studio on Portland's Commercial Street is, she cocks her head to consider the answer.
"That's the number one question I get ... 'So, what is this,'?" she says as she glances around her gallery/shop/studio at the eclectic, funky mix of clothes, artwork and accessories. "I can't pinpoint it in one word."
She's been asked that question a lot lately. Two successive Saturdays in September saw cruise ship passengers (2,900 and 3,100 respectively) infiltrate the Old Port, many of whom found their way to Alex's whimsical shop, perhaps lured by the pom-pom-adorned dress in the window.
Since moving to the Old Port in January from her former digs in Belfast, the artist has presented commissioned work at the governor's ball on tourism, an international conference on climate change in Maine and the 60th anniversary of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. Her signature pieces are "sculptural installations" -- fantastical fashions created to emphasize a theme for a particular event displayed on live models.
Alex's installations will be front and center at the upcoming Harvest on the Harbor weekend of Oct. 22-24. Marking the second annual celebration of Portland's growing culinary scene, the three-day festival is intended to promote the city as a year-round culinary destination. Last year, the inaugural event brought in 3,000 visitors; this year, projections are for 5,000 visitors who are expected to pump roughly $1.5 million into area restaurants, lodgings and cash registers, estimates organizer Barbara Whitten, president of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is spearheading the event.
"Meredith has an interesting twist and her creations -- the cupcake dress, the coffee bean dress, the seafood dress -- are unique ways for us to market the event," says Whitten, who used a chunk of her $200,000 marketing budget to commission Alex to make 10 dresses, each tied to a sponsor or theme of the event. "She's doing a great job creating buzz for Harvest on the Harbor."
Alex is finishing two of the dresses in time for Thursday's official Harvest on the Harbor press conference and kick-off at the Ocean Gateway. On Monday, she was working on a long, slim dress fronted with a panel made with woven strips of last year's Portland tourism, accessorized with a bouquet of blueberries and corkscrew pieces of dried apple. Another is a huge Southern belle hoop dress, composed of bunches of grapes, apple peels, blueberries and mollusks -- a tribute to foodies of every stripe.
"I try to fuse fashion, sculpture and performance art," says Alex, who laughs when she thinks of the scale of the Harvest on the Harbor project. Earlier, she lugged and scrubbed bushels of oyster, mussel and clam shells gathered from local restaurants that will find their way into the skirt of one of her fantastical dresses. "I guess you could say this is where the creative economy is really important," she says.
Alex, who learned to sew growing up on her family's farm in Freedom, is a graduate of the California Institute of Art, where she studied costume design. She left a position as director of programs at the Waterfall Arts Center in Belfast to pursue her art in Portland. In addition to her commission pieces, she creates one-of-a-kind and couture fashions at her studio, which also serves as a gallery and exhibition space for other artists. An avowed environmentalist, Alex loves using vintage clothes in new ways, recycling not only the fabric, but the karma of the garb into something new.
"I'm really excited to be on a mission to inspire the masses through green aesthetics," she says of her work. "And the Harvest on the Harbor is just a great venue for all the contributors."
Whitten expects the event's 125 exhibition spaces will be occupied by food or beverage vendors, as well as organizations and businesses that stand to gain from Portland's growing culinary presence. Recent features in The New York Times and Bon Appétit naming Portland a foodie destination have helped, says Whitten, and dovetail nicely with the Harvest on the Harbor's mission.
"It's trying to get people to expand that notion of Maine just being lighthouses and lobsters," she says. "People aren't aware of the caliber of the food products and chefs here. We want people to come because we have great food ... and not just in the three months of summer."
View a complete list of Harvest on the Harbor events -- including the introduction of the Man Cave, an enclave of grilling and brewing delights >>
See more of Meredith Alex's work >>