Afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows and soft guitar music filled the air at the Lighthouse Arts Center. The view of the Penobscot River’s deep blue waters, wind-driven waves and boats bobbing at the marina made a scenic backdrop for the artwork gracing the gallery’s walls.
This Main Street gallery has something for everyone. Naturally, the ocean, lobster boats and buoys, lighthouses and other quintessential coastal Maine scenes is the focus of many oils and watercolors displayed. The Maine countryside is covered too with its barns, farms and grassy fields. A moose, baby seal and Atlantic puffin pop up in fine, still photos.
Open year-round, the Lighthouse Center’s gallery also features vibrant quilts, fine jewelry, wooden bowls, driftwood “faery dwellings” and other handworks.
“The gallery is a place for people to come find joy and peace in the beauty of creation,” said Kathryn James, who opened the Lighthouse Arts Center last year.
Completely renovated, 86 Main long ago served as a hardware store belonging to Horace Buck — a descendant of Buckport’s namesake and founder Jonathan Buck. It also once was home to Ming’s Garden Chinese restaurant before standing vacant for some time.
Originally from Binghamton, N.Y., James and her late husband, Roger, retired to Maine in 2001. Previously, she had worked for various telephone companies in different capacities, from a toll operator to customer service. In her spare time, she painted watercolors and honed her skills over the years.
“The first time I visited Maine I felt like I’d come home,” she said. “I love the scenery in Maine. It just speaks to me. The beautiful pine trees and the different colors of the rocks, I love all that crisp detail.”
Seeking to retire to coastal Maine, the steep real estate prices almost thwarted their plan until they discovered Bucksport.
“The waterfront is just gorgeous,” she said. “We’ve just found it to be this charming community.”
Sadly, James’ husband died from cancer in 2015. She turned more to her artwork and was looking for a place to show her work in downtown Bucksport. At the time the mill town was reeling from the Verso paper mill’s 2014 closure.
Canvassing Main Street, James looked with fresh eyes at the vacant storefronts including the empty, three-story building at 86 Main.
“I have no children,” she related. “You get to those points in your life where you say, ‘What am I going to be doing?’ And for me, what happened was God came along and said, ‘Hey, let’s go downtown and see what buildings are for sale.’”
James had a vision. The idea of an arts center and gallery sprang to mind.
“My dream has always been to create a place where artists could show their work,” she said.
At considerable expense, it took more than a year to transform 86 Main into the airy, light-filled cultural hub that stays open through the winter.
The center has two art galleries while felting, “Clay and Sip” and other art-related workshops are housed on the ground floor.
“We did a complete remodel,” she said. “We completely gutted it and started over, so it needed a lot of work, but it was just a perfect space.”
The three-story arts center features the main gallery on the middle level, a gallery upstairs for special exhibits and an educational center in the lower level. Plein-air painting classes are offered off-site.
In the galleries, James and her staff are constantly freshening the overall look and layout and injecting new pieces from the more than 100 artists represented there.
On this day, plumber-turned-found object artist Joe Kennedy’s whimsical sculpture catches the eye. Salvaged copper pipes twist upward like stems and fan blades unfurl like a flower.
By a window, Dedham artist Eddie Harrow’s wooden vase brims with wooden, curling-petaled flowers.
“When we shift things, people who come in regularly will notice an artist they hadn’t before because the dynamics change,” James said. “Some people started out doing this type of work, and now they’re doing this, so it evolves and you get to be part of it.”
Not only has she given artists a year-round place to show their creations, James also has played a key role in Buckport’s evolving comeback since the mill closed.
“Bucksport is growing,” she said. “It’s really being revitalized, and a lot of local people have told me that I started it. This was a catalyst. This got it going. This is a place to be.”
The Lighthouse Arts Center is located at 86 Main St. in Bucksport. For more info, call (207) 702-9135 and visit www.lighthouseartscenter.com.