The second annual Cabinet of Wonder benefit at Mechanics’ Hall on March 21 sold out in less than a day – not by bringing in big-name artists but by creating a sense that surprises would unfold throughout the evening.

“I love when I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Darcy Poor, of Portland. “And I invited people who I thought would share my excitement.”

Cabinet of Wonder is both a celebration of literary and visual arts, music and performance and an ode to the three-story hall built by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association in 1815.

“The story of that original mission – lending tools to the craftsmen who built Portland – needs to be told,” said Ed Gardner of sponsor Gardner Real Estate. “And the building is harnessing in a new era.”

A reception in the first-floor annex provided an opportunity to linger in a Mechanics’ Hall space typically rented to a tenant (clothing and accessories designer Loquat is moving in). But, for the one-night fundraiser, the cabinets were filled with curiosities – including paper lanterns made from pages of books decommissioned from the hall’s library, a shoeshine kit that belonged to John Calvin Stevens (architect of the ballroom) and automatons by Paul Spooner (a preview to a larger exhibit later this year). In the annex’s display windows, dancers explored mannequin-like movements.

The party – with refreshments from Cocktail Mary, Baxter Brewing and David’s Restaurant – continued in the library, where Katherine Ferrier tapped poetry on a typewriter to decidedly un-library-like soundscapes. Across the hall, guests walked through an immersive art “portal” by Portals of Portl&.


All this was a prelude for the “main event” in the ballroom, featuring physically emotive pianist Ben Cosgrove, who writes instrumental pieces about landscape and geography. From the balcony, Christa Ebert, known as the “Uno Lady,” brought a one-woman wonder of layered voices (some recorded) and landscape videos (all of her creation). And dancer AJ Paramo (from Hogfish’s 2023 production of “CarmXn”) brought a self-choreographed piece about inspiration from within.

The finale was Brian J. Evans’ dance-theater piece to Shane Koyczan’s poem “Shine,” which is about empowerment and choice. The performance built to Evans shining a small, circular light and then showing an audience member – and another, and another – how to shine theirs. As the poem wound to its conclusion, guests reached under their chairs to find that they, too, had a light – a keychain-sized flashlight – to lend to the world.

“I pitched this work, and everyone was very supportive of making it happen, lights and all,” Evans said.

With a dozen corporate sponsors, plus in-kind sponsors and three tiers of host committee members, Cabinet of Wonder raised $56,000 – more than double last year’s total – to support one of Portland’s oldest and most creativity-centered buildings.

“We are an historic organization, but we are not your grandfather’s Mechanics’ Hall,” board chair Bill Stauffer said.

“Tonight’s program – from top to bottom – has been artist-led,” Executive Director Annie Leahy said. “It embodies our vision of providing space in our community for dance and music, poetry and literature, idea sharing, experimentation and incubation. … Since 1859, this Hall has served as a sanctuary, illuminating beauty in times of darkness, supporting craft and creators, and inspiring learning and curiosity.”

On April 1, Mechanics’ Hall was awarded $2.86 million in congressionally directed spending for renovations, including replacing the historic roof and upper clerestory.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at

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