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Humanities5 MIN READ

Lights Out Gallery gifts a treasure trove of interviews with contemporary Maine artists to Colby’s digital archives

Matt LeVan, Colby's digital archives librarian, hopes the hopes interviews with Maine artists are used around campus for teaching and learning. "But I also hope they are used more broadly. They feel raw and open, and you get to appreciate and understand artists’ approaches to their work in a way you don’t normally have the opportunity to experience," said LeVan, shown here at Miller Library.
By Bob Keyes
March 28, 2024

As part of its strategy to expand and share its digital collections around art, music, and other Maine subcultures, Colby Libraries’ Digital Initiatives Division is archiving Lights Out Gallery’s video interviews with Maine artists that began during the early days of the pandemic and have continued in the years since.

The Maine-based art gallery began recording the interviews in winter 2020 and recently gave its collection of more than 80 artist interviews, most conducted in artists’ creative spaces, to Colby for widespread public distribution and consumption, as well as for campus learning.

Matt LeVan, Colby’s digital archives librarian, was immediately intrigued.

“When I learned what this archive included, it became pretty clear very quickly that I was interested. These interviews have a lot of potential for research and teaching, and they capture Maine culture in a cool and unique way,” said LeVan. “We want to expand our digital collections offerings in the arts, and this is the first we are rolling out.”

The library has made the first batch of Maine Artist Interviews available through JSTOR, a nonprofit digital library of academic journals and scholarly content, and others will be posted on a weekly basis. Among the artists whose interviews are now available are Abbeth Russell, William Hessian, and Hayden Maltese.

Lights Out Gallery, located in a former snowshoe factory in the western Maine town of Norway, about 70 miles from Waterville, is dedicated to connecting artists with broader communities. Gallery cofounders Reed McLean, Daniel Sipe, and Karlë Woods began the video interviews just before the pandemic.

“These interviews started from a place of simple curiosity,” McLean said. “This beginning era was scrappy, intense, and fast-paced. The question on our minds during that time was, ‘What is going on out there? How was everyone faring alone, in their studios, uninterrupted in the quiet backwaters and downtowns of Maine?’ 

“We tapped into the restless isolation of these artists, who had so much to say and no one to say it to. An addictive quality was born out of this time that has remained with us, a desire to discover and catalyze the disparate groups of working artists peppered along the coasts, in the swamps, in the rolling hills.”

Reed McLean (right) interviews artist Daniel Minter DFA ’23 in January 2023 in Portland, Maine. (Photo courtesy of Lights Out Gallery)

Sipe described the interviews as short documentaries, with most lasting between 8 and 15 minutes.

“We wanted to see what was happening in people’s studios when no one was going to art shows. We did a few interviews, and they all seemed to go well so we decided to do one a week in that first year,” Sipe said, noting they recorded 46 interviews between Feb. 1 and Dec. 31, 2022. “We found the interviews become a sense of therapy for artists. We say it’s like having tea with someone. We arrive with our camera equipment and then we sit down and talk with them.”

The series has continued in the two years since, though at a slower pace. It now includes a total of 84 interviews.

Sipe said he and his colleagues at the gallery are thrilled the interviews ended up at Colby. “It was important for us that this collection would be held by someone who cares about art, and Colby has always been dedicated to Maine art history,” Sipe said. “It’s a perfect solution.”

Excellent for educational purposes

The collection has value for students, professors, artists, curators, and anyone interested in art anywhere in the world, LeVan said.

“My hope is these interviews are used around campus because they have a lot of potential for teaching and learning. But I also hope they are used more broadly. They are available to anyone, and they are preserved forever—or as long as forever can be,” he said. “They feel raw and open, and you get to appreciate and understand artists’ approaches to their work in a way you don’t normally have the opportunity to experience.”

The collaboration with Lights Out Gallery is part of a larger library initiative to share other art collections in digital formats. LeVan is working with the Colby Museum of Art to digitize and exhibit, also in JSTOR, the museum’s exhibition catalogs going back to the late 1940s. He’s working with the Lunder Institute for American Art to share audio recordings of the institute’s 10-week summer think tank program from 2023 and with Catherine Besteman, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor Anthropology, to share stories and art of Maine’s incarcerated people collected through the collaborative statewide humanities project Freedom & Captivity.

“All of these will be rolling out over the next couple months, and I hope these are just a jumping-off point for future digital projects focused on Maine art, music, and culture,” LeVan said.

Working with Colby Libraries has led Lights Out to other collaborations on campus and in Waterville. This summer, a Colby student will serve as a gallery intern, and Lights Out is talking with Waterville Creates about an exhibition for 2025, Sipe said.