Riverbed Art creator Kim Chabre places a piece of blue river glass onto her latest drawing. Chabre works from her home in Caribou, drawing inspiration from the nearby Aroostook River. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A lifelong Caribou resident and self-taught artist, Kim Chabre has been drawing and painting since she was a child. But years of scavenging the Aroostook River for hidden treasure has morphed into Aroostook’s only river glass art business.

“It’s cool to take these pieces that look like trash and turn them into something beautiful,” Chabre said.

Like beach glass along seashores, the shades of white, brown, blue, green, red and black Chabre has discovered formed after various waste products, including bottles, tableware and industrial materials, were discarded into the river. After years of tumbling in the waves, the glass washes up on the shore with a smooth, polished surface. In Maine, Down East and midcoast beaches are the most common places to find beach glass.

Caribou’s riverfront was once home to massive steam and diesel power plants that the city hopes to clean up. The plants pumped their waste into the river, as did the former starch factory and other agricultural manufacturers that lined the region near Aroostook River. The glass Chabre and her partner, Luc Daigle, have found likely originated from those industries.

Chabre and Daigle own and operate Riverbed Art, a new business that turns those remnants of Caribou’s past into unique creations.

Riverbed Art launched last summer but originated in the mid-2000s when Chabre and Daigle started walking on a beachy part of the riverfront, where the Caribou Stream begins flowing into the Aroostook River.

“There was all this glass, and we got excited because we thought it was something rare and special,” Daigle said. “But then we started finding more glass, driftwood and bottles that had tumbled down the river. It became this obsession.”

Most of the glass was in small pieces, and Chabre and Daigle easily collected up to 5 pounds each trip. Chabre began incorporating the glass into her drawings.

As Chabre works, she chooses the glass that fits most naturally with the images. For example, she recently used a rare piece of red milk glass as the skirt for a ballerina. The deep red blended in fully with the dancer’s red top and helped the drawing stand out to a recent online buyer.

“I usually let an idea take me where it’s going to go. Sometimes the drawing inspires the glass and sometimes the glass inspires the drawing,” Chabre said. “I found this red milk glass that I’d never seen before, so I drew the ballerina to fit that piece.”

Chabre did not seriously pursue art until she began undergoing breast cancer treatments in 2019. No longer working and with more time on her hands, she used art to deal with the physical and emotional pain of chemotherapy.

Chabre has been cancer free since 2020 but has not returned to her social work career due to other health issues. She immersed herself more in art, and she and Daigle wanted to share her nature-inspired work with others.

Since launching Riverbed Art, the couple has showcased artwork at The Common Gallery in Presque Isle and at the Presque Isle Fish & Game Club Spring Sportsman’s Show. They plan to sell Chabre’s art at local festivals this summer.

Daigle manages a company website that sells Chabre’s river glass drawings, paintings, jewelry and print-on-demand products such as coffee mugs, T-shirts and stickers. Select work is sold at Creative Carpentry of Maine in Caribou.

“The uniqueness is part of what attracts people. When people at the Sportsman’s Show heard where [the glass] comes from, they were shocked,” Daigle said. “They didn’t know that something like that came from a local river.”

When the spring flooding stops and water levels drop off, Chabre and Daigle will once again scavenge the riverfront, adding to the thousands of glass pieces they’ve already collected through the years.

For Chabre, making treasure out of those broken pieces of history is a never-ending pleasure.

“This has brought me so much joy that I hope it does the same for other people,” Chabre said. “I hope it becomes their little piece of sunshine.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the amount of river glass collected.