In the studio with Pandora LaCasse, the Maine artist behind Portland’s festive and whimsical annual light show
Hanging from a picture frame in Pandora LaCasse’s studio in Bayside is a tiny, fragile thing. The object is no bigger than a fingernail. It is shaped like an upside down urn, and when it catches the light, the gossamer-thin vessel glimmers slightly. “I raised caterpillars to monarchs this year,” reveals the artist. We both bend down and examine the empty chrysalis. “It was the most amazing color,” she says with a dreamy tone in her voice. “It was such a beautiful light green.”
LaCasse is a sculptor who works with light and color, and even if you don’t know her name, you’ve seen her work. Every winter, her organic forms hang from poles and buildings in downtown Portland. Made of metal and covered in thousands of LED lights, the pieces bring warmth and light to the darkest, coldest months of the year. “When the leaves leave, I put back the organic shapes,” she says. “My hope is that people see them and smile, have a moment of pause.”
LaCasse is an attentive and thoughtful artist, and all around her studio I find signs of her close observation of the natural world. In a teacup on a shelf, she has a delicate fragment of a paper wasp’s nest. Nearby sits a collection of pebbles and feathers. On a high shelf rests a series of labeled jars, filled with black sand from Iceland, red dust from Utah. And just beyond these earthy treasures, LaCasse has hung dozens of her metal orbs. They are naked and waiting for their lights, waiting to return to the city streets, where they will gleam red, gold, and yellow on winter nights.
Her history of public art dates back to 1998, when Portland’s Downtown District commissioned LaCasse to install lights in Tommy’s Park. “I hadn’t really worked in an outside space,” she admits, “but I was up for the challenge.” The first thing she did was to pay a visit to the park so that she could better understand the needs of the space, the movement and flow of people and trees.
“I noticed that it was a very vertical space. I watched how people walked through it, and I noticed that their eyes never went up as they walked around. Their eyes went horizontal along the path.” She wanted to draw their vision skyward, and so she decided to wrap the tree boughs in lights. “People relate to light and color—that’s an easy thing,” she says. “I knew I wanted to wrap them in such a way that you would see them from around any corner, and so you would look up. I wanted the trees to talk to each other—to relate.” In addition to wrapping the trunks and branches with lights, LaCasse also suspended organic-shaped sculptures, which would sway and move with the wind. “The forms give an unexpected element,” she explains. “It makes them feel out of the ordinary.”
From this first project, LaCasse’s annual output grew and grew. Portland’s Downtown District was so pleased with the installation at Tommy’s Park that they soon hired her to decorate the poles along Congress Street. LaCasse joined forces with the Maine College of Art to deck their building in colored spheres, which appear to tumble from the rooftop like bubbles from a champagne bottle. Her work on Commercial Street has a similarly aquatic feel. “It’s a visually crowded street, with the poles, the wiring, and all the gaps in the rooflines,” she says. “I came up with the idea of using the buildings themselves. I used spheres again, and this time it was a play on being on the edge of the ocean. I wanted them to look like ocean spray, like bubbles.” Now, LaCasse’s blue, green, and white lights dance along the busy seaside thoroughfare from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, brightening the daily journey of many commuters and delighting tourists. The artistic process has evolved over the years to include a team of part-time employees and many members of LaCasse’s family, including her husband, David, her son, Christopher, her daughter, Bree, and her nephew, Jesse.
In addition to these major streets, LaCasse has also decorated many parks throughout the city, including Longfellow Square, Deering Oaks Park, Boothby Square, and, most recently, Lincoln Park. On November 20, 2017, LaCasse flipped the switch for this latest installation. The abstract metal forms are hung from trees and glow yellow and white—a more subdued palette that fits with the historic nature of the newly restored public space. Frank Reilly, president of the Friends of Lincoln Park, has been working to restore the green swathe of land for five years, and he is “more than satisfied” with how LaCasse’s light show turned out. “It’s a historic landmark that dates back to 1866, and Pandora did something in a very serene manner that reflects that bearing of the park,” he says. “She understood the space right away; she is a true artist.” He adds that feedback has been positive. “Everyone tells us how beautiful it looks,” Reilly says. “It’s unusual and totally unlike any of the other installations in town.”
This was intentional, LaCasse reveals. “I had always wanted to do something in Lincoln Park. It’s a very quiet place, and I wanted to give it something special.” For the first time, LaCasse used entirely distinctive shapes; no two of the leaf-like forms are exactly the same (save for a few of the spheres). “To connect all the different shapes, I used a simple color palette of warm white and gold,” she says. “I wanted it to look like warm candlelight. I wanted it to feel like you were walking amongst these odd chandeliers. I wanted grace and elegance and beauty.”
Whether her works are inspired by nature or by vintage light fixtures, LaCasse says her primary goal is to inspire “a sense of wonder and magic” in viewers. She herself finds wonder and magic in “all kinds of little moments—finding bugs with bright colors, watching spiders make their webs, watching birds fly.” LaCasse has a childlike appreciation for the natural world and rather fittingly, some of her biggest fans are children. “The most rewarding part of my work is hearing the public’s response,” she says. Frequently, children approach LaCasse on the street when she’s setting up the lights to ask her questions or simply to praise the installations. “It’s become an activity families do together,” LaCasse says.
According to Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown, thousands of visitors pour into Portland each year to do a walking tour of LaCasse’s lights. “Visitors who have never before come to Portland are awestruck,” Gilbert says. “And Pandora is so meticulous, that every year, it goes off without a hitch. It’s an incredible gift she’s given Portland.” When asked whether we’ll ever see a Portland winter without LaCasse’s distinctive glowing forms, Gilbert is doubtful.
“As long as Pandora is willing to work with us, we want to have her winter lights,” she says. “It just brightens up everyone’s evenings during those dark, cold months.”