Between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, as Maine endures the long, dark, cold, colorless grip of winter, the city of Portland lights up with a fantastic display of colorful lights that illuminate everything from the Commercial Street waterfront through the Old Port shopping district to the Congress Street arts district up to Longfellow Square.
Deering Oaks, too, comes alive with these lights, as does the heart of Freeport village. These are not, in fact, Christmas lights, but rather the elegant abstract “light forms” of sculptor Pandora LaCasse.
LaCasse may well be both Maine’s most and least visible artist. On the one hand, more people probably see her art in any given year than that of any other artist in the state. On the other, she is a modest fifty-eight-year-old mother who prefers not be in the limelight.
She does not have a listed telephone number. She does not have a Web site. And there are no signs identifying her studio in a former electrical supply warehouse in Portland’s Bayside industrial neighborhood.
“It’s not that I don’t want to branch out,” says LaCasse. “I’m just very busy doing what I do now.”
Pandora LaCasse was born Pandora Worster in Skowhegan in 1952. Having worked for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel while in high school, she thought seriously about becoming a photojournalist, but after marrying David LaCasse and traveling the world with him while he served in the air force, she returned to Maine and majored in art at the University of Maine. Between 1980 and 1983, she earned a masters of fine arts degree in sculpture at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1983, Pandora and David LaCasse settled in Portland. David, an electrical engineer, established LaCasse & Weston, a firm specializing in industrial heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. Pandora raised their daughter Bree and son Christopher, taught at the University of Southern Maine and Maine College of Art, and kept busy as a touring artist under the auspices of the Maine Arts Commission.
LaCasse created abstract sculpture in wood, metal, and Plexiglas until 1998 when, she explains, she began sculpting with light at the request of Barbara Hager, then-executive director of Portland’s Downtown District.
“We were searching for ways to draw attention to downtown Portland,” explains Hager. “First we hired the guy who does the lights on netting in Harvard Square. Then we found Pandora. We were so proud of doing something so unique, and we were so proud that she was a local artist.”
LaCasse’s light designs began modestly, with lights on poles along Congress Street and wrapped around trees in Tommy’s Park at the corner of Middle and Exchange streets. Over the years, LaCasse’s lights spread across downtown Portland, appearing as abstract shapes across the facade of Maine College of Art, as flames of light on trees in Longfellow Square, and as “bubbles from the sea” adorning businesses along Commercial Street.
LaCasse’s 1,800-square-foot, two-room studio on the second floor of the former Rockingham Electrical Supply Company is a spartan industrial space where she fashions spring wire and stainless steel tubing into the forms around which she wraps her lights — strings of fifty LED lights in a palette consisting of red, blue, green, gold, orange, pink, and purple.
“I like the purity of the colors,” she says. “I try to paint with those colors.”
LaCasse does all the design work herself, but the annual installation of her light forms becomes something of a family affair. Daughter Bree came up with the spiral method used to wrap the strings of light into the metal forms. Husband David and electrician Dan Swett do the electrical work. David LaCasse also programs the lights, which change color daily. (LaCasse does not care for blinking lights.) And nephew Jesse LaCasse, a former St. Joseph’s College catcher now playing professional baseball in Germany, returns each October to take charge of the actual installation of the lights around the city.
Portland’s Downtown District budgets forty thousand dollars a year for LaCasse’s ever-changing light exhibition. “It’s absolutely a unique take on holiday lighting,” says Portland’s Downtown District Executive Director Jan Beitzer. “It reflects the contemporary nature of Portland, its art community, and the creative economy.”
In 2002, the Friends of Deering Oaks commissioned LaCasse to light up the park, which she does with light forms around the urban skating pond and by tracing the limbs of the park’s signature pin oak, the Candelabra Tree. Three years later, LaCasse added her largest single commission, designing the Northern Lights display for the L.L. Bean campus in Freeport. There she combines traditional Christmas tree lighting with both her abstract light forms and a projected wash of colored lights across the front of the store itself.
“I’m always trying to get to the essence of a place,” says LaCasse of her illuminating artwork. “I think people like the lights because it’s the middle of winter and they respond to the color and light. And it’s accessible. You don’t have to think about it.”
True enough. Come the bleak midwinter, all you have to do is walk around Portland and Freeport and enjoy the glow.
- Photography by: Mark Fleming