LIGHTS OUT LIGHTS UP

written by KAREN JELENFY
portrait photography by THEA HART
photography courtesy of LIGHTS OUT

TThe former Tubbs Snowshoes factory (above) is a plain-faced wooden structure on a side street in Norway, Maine. Founded in 1906, the Tubbs factory was famous for producing high-quality snowshoes, skis and sleds, even outfitting the famed Robert Peary polar expeditions, leading to Norway being hailed as the “Snowshoe Capital of the World.”

Today, Norway has become what so many Maine towns evolve into: quaint, tourist-dependent and ready for creative ideas. The factory, an enormous relic of bygone times, is the newly acquired home of Lights Out Consulting, a trio of crusaders: Reed McLean, Karle Woods and Daniel Sipe. They are searching out makers in all corners of the state and providing little-known artists with a digital platform and a voice. Buying the factory is Lights Out’s first stab at a home of its own, a place that the three hope will become a gallery, makers’ space, shared workspace and community hub.

From the left: Reed McLean, Karle Woods and Daniel Sipe.

Reed and Karle were childhood friends here in Western Maine and met through Karle’s parents’ gallery in South Paris. Norway is Reed’s hometown and he returned after earning a BFA from Alfred University. He says that he is “fully committed” to Norway and wants to ensure that his hometown doesn’t “fall into a pit.” He feels compelled to “save what we’ve got” in his hometown and notes that there are many environmentalists settling in the area. In fact, the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy is working with Lights Out to bring their new building to life.

Karle, who grew up in nearby South Paris, studied human ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. She has been focused on graphic design from a very early age. She is responsible for the public face of Lights Out through its mailings and overall look, while Reed runs the camera and edits the videos.

Daniel, from Presque Isle, is the business manager of Lights Out. He was an early graduate from the Foster Center for Innovation at U. Maine, Orono, where he studied marketing—or, as he puts it, “how to take an idea and make it real.” He says he “fell into politics” through canvassing for the minimum wage for the Maine’s People’s Alliance. After a stint working for the Democratic party in Pennsylvania, Dan returned to Portland where he met Karle and Reed. Dan and Reed began dating and the three began collaborating.

Shortly afterwards, during a planned art opening in Dan’s apartment, a storm wiped out the power in Portland for four days. Galvanized into action by the challenge, the crew held the tremendously successful event anyway and gained a cheeky name: Lights Out. COVID-19 erased the next envisioned show, but in 2021 Reed, Karle and Dan—now weathering the pandemic in Norway—moved to an online presence, traveling the state with their camera and sound equipment and interviewing artists in their studios. (Disclosure: I am one of those artists.)

On a frigid winter’s day early this year, my partner Pete and I invited ourselves to the new headquarters of Lights Out. This is as far west as I’ve ever been in Maine and as we wound around on pitted back roads and through tiny towns and frozen fields (not the fastest route, I grant you), my astonishment at the sheer size of this state grew. In these deep forests and seemingly empty places many Mainers live and work. Here on the coast we forget about these towns, these workers, quietly getting on with “life the way it should be.”

We met in the newly acquired Tubbs building (above) at 10 Tannery Rd. in Norway. All of us were bundled up in coats and hats as we toured the enormous unheated facility, everyone talking at once about the possibilities of the huge, junk-filled spaces. Pete and I, avid junkers, could barely keep ourselves from grabbing stuff and were encouraged by the crew to take whatever we wanted. (We did take a little.) Then it was back to the tiny space they’ve carved out to be the office, where we got down to it.

Reed always seemed to be perched just above his chair, rather than in it. Karle was earnest and focused, sitting between the two men. Dan leaned forward, sporting a fur hat, gesturing and clarifying. They all talked fast, energized by their latest venture and bursting with ideas.

Karen Jelenfy: Are you INSANE???

In unison: Laughter

Reed McLean: I walked by it all the time and finally thought “that’s the building.” It’s an important piece of Norway’s history. (Norway still celebrates a Snowshoe Festival during the 10-day Winter Carnival held every year.)

Daniel Sipe: I called around for information, then went directly to the owner. Reed’s dad became a silent partner and we bought it pretty cheaply. (Reed’s dad, Dr. Don Mclean, is the town’s veterinarian.)

Reed (laughing): We’re addicted to impossible, fixer-upper projects!

Karle Woods: It needs a new roof, foundation work, insulation and a new façade.

Dan: We’ll work on it incrementally.

Reed (interrupting): We’re really resourceful people!

Dan: We’re going to start with shared office space and then a maker’s space. Eventually, we’d like to have a gallery, a dance studio and possibly artist studio rentals.

KJ: What has been the town’s reaction to your purchase so far?

Reed: People are definitely curious. Neighbors have driven by, introduced themselves, been talking about it. Norway Brewing [across the street] gave us a warm welcome. The town manager is interested as well and we will be giving him a tour. Our friends and family are fired up and offering their help, but we have not made a media entrance yet [at the time of this interview]. We know people are talking about it and wondering what will happen here.

KJ: How do you find your artists?

Reed: We are always looking for interesting artists around Maine. We use social media, recommendations from past featured artists, gallery websites, residency websites and arts organizations. We find people we like and introduce their work to the rest of the team, and then we vote on whether we’d like to do a feature on them. The vote has to be unanimous and we often change each other’s minds or advocate for people that we like. We reach out to these artists and if they agree to do the feature it’s pretty much set in stone.

KJ: We haven’t talked about the show you did for your first group of featured artists. Can you talk about that a bit?

 

Reed: Our first show DEBUT was held in late August last year at 24 Preble St. in Portland. It was only open for four days, showcasing 100 works by 24 artists. Roughly 500 people were in attendance. We feel that it made a big splash.

KJ: What exhibitions do you have coming up?

Karle: A group exhibition with the artists we interviewed from August through December 2021, called Bellepoque, that we will curate from work submitted by our most recent group of interviewed artists. It will be held at All Roads Hub, 4 Nulty St. in Bridgton, May 26–June 1, 2022, with work by about 16 artists.

Reed: The title is a mashup of “La Belle Epoque.” We’re trying to show a savage beauty; everything smashed together. We’re commenting on the NOW with this show, at least obliquely.

(Disclosure: I am in this show.)

KJ: Finally, talk about your Vaccine Equity Project run by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Dan: We have a contract with the DHHS to move through the rural counties promoting the COVID-19 vaccine through arts presentations. We’ve gone from Oxford to Aroostook to Waldo to Washington making connections with kids, nonprofits, teachers and librarians holding art competitions juried by local community leaders from the arts and health fields. In Aroostook County, we received 74 submissions from 25 towns. The winners are announced and promoted on Instagram and with heavy media marketing.

Karle: After the jurying, I design a postcard for each competition, which is sent to every household in each county. The postcards show the winning art and artist.

KJ: In what other ways do you get funding?

Dan: We received a grant for operating costs and equipment from The Community Foundation. We accept donations on our website lightsoutgallery.org.

Karle: I’m a freelance graphic designer and I front our design company Lights Out Art Consulting media and advertising, which brings in clients.

KJ: Anything else?

In unison: Everyone reading this is invited to move to NORWAY, MAINE.

. . .

lightsoutgallery.org

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