Wade Kavanaugh works on a one-eighth scale model of a tree in his Gem movie theater-turned-artist-studio in Bethel. He closed the theater in March after the coronavirus had spread into Maine. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

BETHEL — Wade Kavanaugh says it can be “clarifying, disheartening and sometimes depressing” when he asks himself, “Is what I’m doing essential work?”

Late last year, Kavanagh, co-owner of The Gem movie theater in Bethel, and his collaborator, Stephen Nguyen, won a $1 million grant to create a permanent installation at a facility being built at the Washington Convention Center in Seattle.

The new facility, including their art installation, is expected to be completed in 2021.

Their piece consists of five suspended fabricated tree forms created from wood and displayed suspended, giving the appearance of tree roots growing into the convention center.
“You can see these giant trees twisting, dancing down in this space,” Kavanaugh said.
Instead of sending the work to an on-site fabrication team in Washington state, Kavanaugh has been making one-half scale and one-eighth scale models of the different aspects of the installation.
“We address problems every day as we are working,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of architect’s mindset where we can plan everything and send it to the fabricator.”
The small theater is just large enough to contain one full-scale model of one of the trees.
Kavanaugh and Nguyen have transitioned to remote collaboration in this age of social distancing. They send ideas through the internet. For logistical considerations, they are building the to-be-suspended pieces upside down.
But the process of translating the piece visually has been challenging for Kavanaugh.
“Our collaboration just hit our limit with remote working,” he said. “This would be so much easier if we were in person. We still have so much to figure out. Every day is another question. “
Kavanaugh and his wife, Beth Weisberger, have owned The Gem since 2015. They initially looked at the space for a warehouse for her mail-order spice business, Gneiss Spice.
They opened the theater for a few weekends on a shoe-string budget to explore local interest and quickly discovered the community missed having its movie theater. They then ran a community-supported campaign to raise funds to purchase digital projectors, which has allowed the small theater to show new releases.
Weisberger had been using the smallest of the four theaters as a storage space for her spice business.
After the couple closed the theater in March, he leveled out the sloping floor, built temporary walls, installed additional lighting and moved his art studio into the space.
“We’ve always pitched (The Gem) as an art space, but I’ve never really thought of it as my art space,” Kavanaugh said.
Making the decision to close the theater ahead of the state’s order was not easy for the couple.
He had been privy to firsthand knowledge of the severity of the pandemic through conversations with other people working on the Convention Center in Seattle, one of the early hot spots for the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our engineer was at home with his with his kid,” Kavanaugh said.
The Kavanaughs wanted to stay open as long as possible, “but we also had employees that were getting nervous,” Wade said.
“We had instituted procedures: 6 feet between customers, shutting down every other aisle and sanitizing in between showings,” he said. But by the end of the last week of business they had canceled a live music performance.
Keeping an eye on the news, they noticed Boston had closed public schools and the last weekend the movie theater was open they noticed a change in customers.
“There aren’t any locals,” Wade Kavanaugh remembers thinking. “It feels like we’re staying open so that people can go on vacation. And this is not vacation.”
On Sunday morning, March 15, they made the decision to close immediately and announce it on social media.
By that night, it was clear that the entire state of Maine was about to be shut down.
“We had belabored this decision,” Wade Kavanaugh said, “but we’re only 24 or 48 hours ahead of where everybody else was.”
When deciding what work to continue and what to close down, Kavanaugh took his cues from the government. The building in Washington State was declared an essential project by the state. Continue to work on the art project was a no-brainer.
“I can make a choice to keep doing the work, or break the contract,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing the work.”
His movie theater has not been deemed essential and will remain closed, although Kavanaugh admits, “It’s valuable to the community.”
“It’s been good for us to step back, and to think if and when we’re allowed to reopen, what are our essential programs?” he said.
“We hope that this is a regenerative time where we get to do a GEM 2.0 and figure out what it is that we want to be in this community,” he said.
Comparing the shutdown of the theater to his life as an artist, Kavanaugh said, “Artists schedule residencies to take a month or two to be in isolation with a group of other artists. To question what they value about their studio practice.
“Everyone collectively is having ‘that moment,'” he said. “For some people, that’s really uncomfortable territory. But for me, I cherish it.”

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