When you step inside the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ Gardenshop, you may notice the sweet ceramic mushrooms made by Brunswick-based Elizabeth Guilbault. As the daughter of both a stained-glass hobbyist and a talented quilter, Guilbault grew up crafting and, for at least one summer spent painting in her family’s basement, dreamed of becoming a professional artist. Instead, she went on to a career in finance, and in 2011, when her father passed away and her children reached double digits, she realized she’d lost touch with her creative spirit.
Guilbault first returned to her father’s pastime, stained glass. Then, she took a ceramics class and found her own favorite form. “In terms of expressing myself through art, pottery hits all the notes,” she says. Guilbault taps into her love of nature, creating small animal sculptures and mushroom-shaped jars and adding natural textures to other functional items. “A lot of my carvings are flower-based because I love their symmetry,” she says.
Four years ago, Guilbault started selling her work at shows. Her display at the Freeport Fall Festival caught the attention of Hannah Laday, the buyer for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ Gardenshop. “I was just mesmerized,” Laday says. She took pictures to share with Gardenshop director Michael McConaha, who was similarly impressed. They arranged a visit to Guilbault’s home studio. “It was empowering to hear their vision of how my work fit into their space,” Guilbault says. “It was a pivotal moment for me as an artist to have them be my first wholesale order.”
When McConaha joined the botanical gardens staff to open the shop in the visitor center six years ago, he prioritized uplifting Maine artists and searching for crafts off the beaten path of showrooms and trade shows. In support of the botanical gardens’ overarching mission to inspire meaningful connections among people, plants, and nature, Michael sources merchandise and products made with sustainable, recycled, or plant-based materials. Guilbault’s use of a closed-system sink, which allows her to use the same five gallons of water for nine months of pottery production, makes her a perfect fit.
“As an organization, we were committed from the beginning that if an item was for sale in Gardenshop, it had to be a portable piece of the mission,” McConaha says. That includes selling goods made by historically marginalized people, including BIPOC makers. “We realized early on that we could extend our impact beyond our support for the work of the botanical gardens by building intentional partnerships within our community of local makers,” he says.
McConaha and Laday are careful to familiarize makers with Gardenshop’s operation. They sometimes commit to orders a season in advance to help producers plan for production and control costs. New to Gardenshop’s inventory are artisan vinegars made by Guilbault’s husband, Brad, a former fine-dining chef. “We’ve been members forever,” Guilbault says. “It is kind of magical that we both have things there because it’s a place we love so much.” Guilbault is now busier than ever, but she welcomes the challenge. “I make things because I love making them and because they’re beautiful,” she says. “But to give something I made to someone else and have them appreciate it — that’s powerful.”
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All products sold at Gardenshop connect to and support the organization’s mission to inspire meaningful connections among people, plants, and nature through horticulture, education, and research.