I went walking today to the snowshoe factory, a location that has consumed my waking thoughts for the past year ever since my partners and I decided, on slightly more than an impulse, to transform its 15,000 square feet into an art gallery, coworking space, maker’s space, and dance studio. I have come to pay a visit to witness the progress made in my absence as we attempt to renovate this building which, by some people’s standards, is close to or beyond anyone’s ability to save. In the past month, a dance studio has been under steady construction on the top floor of the factorya single, large, light-filled room with high ceilings. Painstaking mudding and sanding leads now to the development of the day: a first coat of paint which I have arrived specifically to see. I take in its new face, gradually transformed from a varnish-stained, pigeon-inhabited shell of a structure to a soft, tenderly glowing oasis. The walls are slightly more pink than expected; I’m almost disappointed. The faint afternoon light sifts through the masked-out windows. The dead silence of the room is gently interrupted by the afternoon bells of the opera house across town, their faint, aimless nursery rhyme melody passing through the newborn room where I stand immobilized. I am aware of a strange feeling of inaction, a rarity in my current life with its constant visioning, editing, construction labor and eager planning, with all the desperation and patience befitting a project of this magnitude. The new sheen of the walls stands still for the first time, and I have to admit that it looks good. It would be appropriate to feel satisfied with the work completed in front of me: the even paint, the stately molding, the raw industrial vestiges neatly tamed and accentuated by careful consideration, long hours, setbacks, and leaps forward. Instead of a sense of accomplishment, two things suddenly present with unnerving clarity. The first, a frightening, vulnerable beginningas though I am seeing my own sleeping infant for the first time. The other, a subtle fear, the demand of commitment, the equal risks of abandonment and overbearance. For a moment I am spent from the violent shock of seeing my vision made real, standing in silence on a precipice.

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Lights Out Gallery’s home at 10 Tannery St in Norway, Maine (photo: Lights Out Gallery).

I often come here at night, to do nothing more than walk around in the dark, smell the musty wood, me and the old boards together. It is a peaceful feeling with the windows boarded up, and the air wafting up from the basement. Not at all frightening. Not at all disturbing. Instead, contemplation comes easily to me, and I come up with a whole range of pleasant fantasies: that the building is grateful, relieved to be inhabited again, that it consents to its new use. However, daylight brings the more practical perspective that this process is more an ordeal than a cosmic conspiracy in my favor. A labor of vision no more assisted by the fates than by whatever residual momentum its history maintains, that is, some sort of promise that something with a once storied past could come roaring back into the present with all its prior force. These ideas are more fanciful than anything. Outside of this one room, smoothed out enough to contrast with the raw state of the rest of the building, it remains dark, unheated, and unproven, layers of a century of shoddy repairs pieced one atop the next, each past failure now demanding course correction. These realities utterly replace my fantasies with to-do lists, each totaling the sum of the day, a gross image of life. Anything we manage to finish represents not only something made, but everything unmade to make way for it, the final product supported by an internal matrix of unseen labor.

Beneath my feet is the old growth yellow pine floor, covered in a layer of white dust. We vacuum it up and it looks much worse. Everywhere is abuse to be undone by loving hands joined in a marathon. Here are holes to patch, a process of carving out, fitting, gluing. But now a supporting joist needs attention, broken for unknown decades. Cut out the splintered wood. Fashion a new piece to fit, sisters bolted together. My attention turns to a trap door, one of the more interesting quirks of the room. We consider keeping it, but that option is discarded upon a shrewd examination of its construction. The long-dead fools cut through the members underneath the floor, and without adequate bracing, the cut ends hang freely, offering no support to the structure. The floor bounces with weakness underfoot as one steps near the afflicted area. All this and so much more. An endless ledger too pedantic to continue enumerating, detail after detail requiring practical consideration while the fantasy of a completed project floats quietly overhead in mocking silence.

Between bouts of wild ambition and tunnel vision, something happens that we should have anticipated, but instead takes us by surprise. As the lilacs bloom a wedding comes to town, and with it, a host of friends and family to gather at a local garden for the ceremony. Lacking sufficient seating, the groom’s brother works day and night frantically making benches in our basement. We arrive in the morning and he is already there. We leave at night, he is still bent over a saw. He finishes on time and the event goes smoothly. His work ethic strikes us with a bolt of excitement, the momentary surge of activity in our otherwise uneventful space invigorating to the point of giddiness. Impressed by this single, dedicated hustler we seize the moment and offer him a job building a second entrance for our some-day-to-be gallery. He accepts. The project is frustratingly expensive, something we should be used to by now, but our money-induced anxiety dissipates almost immediately once we get to work, and his attitude begins to infect us all with a lighthearted spirit. We work together for a week, the cold days turn hot and we sweat happily under the sun. He jokes effortlessly with the whole crew, turning mistakes into laughter. A group from next door drops by to volunteer for a particularly difficult lift. He asks and remembers their names instantly, never needing a correction, instructing the group with practiced ease. His attitude brings out the best in each of us, not to mention he is devilishly handsome. Children flock in groups to watch the progress. Drivers passing by honk and cheer from their windows. We relax in the evening and my cooking is flawless, we devour everything with ravenous enthusiasm. The time passes too quickly. The job completed, he leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction that lingers. The drudgery of a week prior is gone. It is all so light and easy.

Then Monday comes with its list of lists. Details need my attention and I work at some little thing or another. Ghosts of the past and future bustle about, too consumed with their own tasks to notice me. Above and around me the vastness of the snowshoe factory waits to be reborn, patient yet dependent. I return again and again to the thought of the building occupied, imagining a flurry of work, the sound of tools, emphatic discussions, late-night grinds, humming gallery shows, the reassuring sound of someone working a room away, floorboards creaking to signal activity provoked by one person’s intensive use for less than a week. My vision is inflamed with a red heat, falling on each relic of the past while seeing evidence of future possibility, obstacles to overcome, offerings of reason to hurry towards a future beginning.


Reed McLean is a founder and co-director of Lights Out Gallery. To learn more about the project to create an art center in Western Maine, visit www.lightsoutgallery.org


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Image at top: Lights Out Gallery’s home at 10 Tannery St. in Norway, Maine (photo: Lights Out Gallery).