PORTLAND, Maine — Kevin Ouellette moved to Maine in 2001, working as a photographer out of his 85-square-foot space on Milk Street, which became the birthplace of his business The Maine Souvenir Shop.
“When COVID-19 hit, I needed a way to make money because I couldn't do weddings anymore, so I opened up a little souvenir shop and quickly my interest turned into local art," Kevin Ouellette, owner of The Maine Souvenir Shop, said. "Helping other people with what was helping me. And within a short few months, everything was made or designed by someone in Maine."
He moved six months later to his current location on the corner of Exchange Street in Portland's Old Port.
Ouellette said the new space gave him the opportunity to expand and give more opportunities and more financial support to local artists. He turned his idea into a way to help his community.
The Maine Souvenir Shope hosts 60 Maine artists at this time.
“[Sixty] isn't anything compared to what Maine has to offer in art," he added. "You go into any town, and you will see local art, and that's only the number of people who put art out. The number of people who are making art that don't share it is staggering, and I hope that they do share it."
His mission is to give local artists real money for real art.
“Whatever we are buying the art for, we charge double. If we are buying it for $10, we charge $20," he revealed about his shop's strategy to support artists.
Ouellette has even discovered artists from local shoppers.
“I’ll ask customers when they come in, 'Do you make art?' You get all these crazy reactions like, 'Oh, I kind of make art.' Then they show you the art, and it's insanely beautiful. I just like to know who's in my store," he said.
"One day I asked the same question, and this lady pointed and told me this 12-year-old makes art. I looked down and my reaction wasn't the best. I humored the situation saying, 'Oh, that's adorable. Show me your art. This should be good,'" Ouellette remarked.
That was Za, who is now the youngest local artist at his shop and one of the most successful.
“I feel lucky, and it makes me feel happy that people I don't even know can be wearing my art around town,” Za professed.
She has sold more than 750 pieces of art in less than a year.
"I'm not only creating the art. I'm helping the store because I make the design, but other people have to print the design and make the sweatshirts and that gives money to them. I'm helping other people while I make my art," she said.
Ouellette wanted to help her create her own brand and financially back her. That’s what they've done.
“I didn't feel like Za had the life experience to know what kind of financial outcome she could have with this, and I wouldn't be able to sleep at times without knowing she didn't have his choice," said Ouellette
He is teaching local artists like Za how to sell their art and how to value their products.