A Lot on Your Plate

On a Newcastle back road, locals and visitors gather to celebrate summer, ceramics, and the world’s greatest pop-up salad bar.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Erin Little
Think of it as a weirdly free-spirited bean supper, or maybe a kind of inverted potluck: you show up at Newcastle’s Salad Days festival empty-handed, and you leave with a dish. Perhaps several dishes. The annual fundraiser for the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts combines the best parts of an art fair with the best parts of a summer church picnic — then adds beer, an idyllic location, and a fun tour of an old brickmaking factory.

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A salad for every palate: Watershed’s kitchen staff and local restaurants collaborate to put out a substantial spread.

Wait, a brickmaking factory? Yep. It’s at the end of a dirt road, deep in the woods of the midcoast, and the place is as odd and wonderful as it sounds. The area was a hub of brickmaking in the 19th century, when locals produced “waterstruck bricks” from the moist alluvial clay along the Sheepscot River. In the 1970s, while historical restoration was on the upswing in New England, a group of out-of-state investors tried to jumpstart Newcastle’s old-school brickmaking biz, and when that effort fizzled, the two-story factory, its kilns, and the surrounding 32 acres of breathtaking farmland instead became a one-of-a-kind artist retreat. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts welcomes around 100 ceramic artists each year — from students to accomplished, later-career ceramicists — for summer and fall residencies, during which they work in the old factory, sleep in a set of mod-looking cabins, and eat a lot of local meat and produce from neighboring Dandelion Spring and Straw’s farms.

You might catch the artists at work if you drop by Salad Days. You’ll likely catch a few at play too. The outdoor fest revolves around a pair of huge picnic and buffet tents — buy a $35 ceramic plate and it’s yours to fill with all the salad you can eat. Dozens of salads — bean salads! veggie salads! fruit salads! pasta salads! — come courtesy of Watershed’s kitchen staff and Lincoln County restaurants (Watershed alone went through some 100 pounds of local organic greens last year, feeding almost 500 attendees). The plates, meanwhile, are made by a special resident artist; this year’s Salad Days artist, Massachusetts-based Liz Hafey, spent last summer furiously slinging clay in the brick factory, churning out 500 plates for this year’s event. Her pretty terracotta dishes have a sort of Fiestaware feel, but with colors that call to mind weathered lobster buoys. Want some beer to wash down those greens? Buy a ceramic drinking glass or handsome hand-thrown stein and help yourself.

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“It’s such an authentic representation of what Watershed is — a combination of beautiful ceramics and locally grown, sustainable food,” says Fran Rudoff, Watershed’s executive director. And, she points out, the two have more in common than just the colony’s agrarian setting: “They’re both using materials that come from the earth.”

In the picnic tent, Portland’s Jerks of Grass provide high-energy bluegrass for dancing, while the midcoast’s Twisted Strings duo wanders the grounds, minstrel style, playing Celtic jigs and reels. Guest artists offer live potting demonstrations, and there’s a raffle for pieces from Watershed artists past and present. Don’t skip the guided tour of the wild old brick factory: one part industrial and one part bohemian, its walls are adorned with oddball graffiti and its shelves lined with gorgeous tiles, elegant unfired pots, and unclassifiable sculptures in various states of completion. Watershed is in the early stages of a capital campaign that will massively upgrade the space (complete with an interpretive exhibit in an old walk-in beehive kiln), but for now, the place has a dimly lit, rustic-punk feel.

Then it’s back out into the sunlight for another jig, another stein of beer, another heaping mound of tabbouleh salad.

Watershed hosts this year’s Salad Days festival on July 9. 11 a.m.–3 p.m. $35. 19 Brick Hill Rd., Newcastle. 207-882-6075. watershedceramics.org

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Brian Kevin

Brian Kevin is Down East's managing editor.