Can Norway’s New Lights Out Gallery Power an Artistic Surge?

The nonprofit aims to transform a tumbledown old snowshoe factory into a creative hub.

Lights Out Gallery founders Karlë Woods, Reed McLean, and Daniel Sipe in an under- construction studio
Lights Out Gallery founders Karlë Woods, Reed McLean, and Daniel Sipe in an under-construction studio
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photos by Cait Bourgault
From our June 2024 issue

The former snowshoe factory that houses downtown Norway’s nonprofit Lights Out Gallery is a series of derelict, leaky brown buildings on a cut-through street. “When we say which building we own, it’s like a blank spot in people’s minds,” says Lights Out cofounder and Norway native Reed McLean. “They don’t even realize there’s a building here.” The Tubbs snowshoe factory dates to 1906, with additions tacked on as late as the 1980s. In its World War II heyday, the complex churned out thousands of snowshoes a month for the U.S. military, earning Norway the nickname the “Snowshoe Capital of the World.” But after the factory closed, in 1989, it fell into disrepair. In 2022, when McLean and his partners, Daniel Sipe and Karlë Woods, pitched the landlord on selling them the place so they could turn it into a multidisciplinary arts center, he readily agreed, on the condition they also take the wall-to-wall junk his family had been storing there for years.

By then, the factory was so crooked it was on the verge of falling in on itself like a house of cards. “Our architect came through and was like, ‘Why are you doing this again?’” McLean says. The founders estimate that rehabbing the building to the point where it can fulfill their vision of hosting a gallery, artists’ studios, a community woodshop, and a coworking space, in addition to the dance studio that’s already up and running, will cost upwards of $3 million. “It’s an unimaginable amount,” Sipe says. “And it’s not like we have the money.” Or what McLean archly refers to as “economic logic.” 

What they do have is friends and cheerleaders in Norway and around Maine who see the nascent arts hub fitting into a yearslong revitalization effort that has transformed Main Street into a strip lined with restaurants, shops, and renovated historic buildings, like the 1894 opera house. With donations and sweat equity from more than 300 volunteers, the Lights Out team has replaced the factory’s foundation, shored up its listing walls, hauled its contents (broken furniture, rusty kitchenware, and other odds and ends) to the scrapyard, installed new drywall and windows, built stairs, and painted the exterior doors what Sipe calls a “we will not abandon you” glowing shade of yellow. Still, most of the complex remains unfinished and unheated. With a capital campaign set to launch later this year and continued support from volunteers, the founders say they hope to have the place fully operational by the end of 2027.

From left: Hula-hoop dancer Nettie Gentempo; sculptor Pamela Moulton with her latest work, a collaboration with fellow Maine artist Roy Fox, titled Tangle.

Lights Out has been a community effort since it started, fittingly enough, with a power outage in Sipe’s Portland apartment. In 2019, McLean and Sipe (who are also life partners now based in Norway), along with their friend Woods, decided to turn the apartment into a pop-up gallery. McLean, a printmaker, dancer, and filmmaker, and Sipe, a former political organizer, solicited work from artist friends, and Woods, a Belfast-based graphic designer, created posters advertising the show. When a wind storm knocked out Sipe’s electricity, they lit candles, hooked up construction lights to a rented generator, and welcomed 50 or so guests. “There was this energy in the air, and this taste for doing it that we developed,” McLean says. During the pandemic, the trio launched a series of YouTube interviews with Maine artists — 86 and counting — that are being archived at the Colby College library. In 2021, they began doing pop-up exhibits again. Bringing artists together in a fixed space feels like the logical next step, McLean says, and “a challenge we can have as our North Star for years.” 

On a recent morning at the Norway complex, a contractor mudded a stairwell in the cavernous former snowshoe-assembly room, envisioned as a studio and coworking space. Behind a tarnished-metal barn door in a rear studio, Norway painter Thea Hart worked on landscapes in the warmth of a recently installed heat pump, while in a circa 1970s warehouse set to become a gallery, Bridgton sculptor Pamela Moulton was wrapping up a commission she and fellow Maine artist Roy Fox collaborated on for the University of Southern Maine titled Tangle. A drum fan blasted her 13-foot-tall giraffe-like creature, composed of salvaged marine rope and fishnets draped over a steel frame, drying its latest coats of glossy blue and green paint. Sitting on a refurbished antique bench in Hart’s studio, McLean said he senses a pent-up artistic energy in the area: “It’s just waiting to be released.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.