Artist Paints at Night – with Light

On a cold, clear November evening at twilight, a couple dozen people climb down the banks of a stream in Acadia National Park and “paint” a carriage road bridge. Combined with the medium ––beams of light –– it is recorded with a time exposure made with a digital camera.

It sounds kind of crazy, but the photographic result is stunning.

The Painting Bridges Project is the brainchild of Howie Motenko, a software engineer at Jackson Laboratory and an avid amateur photographer. The idea of photographing all 16 carriage road bridges and both gatehouses in Acadia at night came to him this past summer.

With the help of his wife, Brenda Beckett, and photographer friend Tom Lawrence, Mr. Motenko tested the concept at the carriage road bridge at Bubble Pond.

“We wanted to try out one just to see if it even made sense,” he said.

The picture that resulted was encouraging, so he invited a few friends to come and wave flashlights over one side of the bridge and inside the barrel of the bridge’s arch while he kept the camera’s shutter open for 20 or 30 seconds. The resulting image is a bridge seamlessly bathed in light.

“We only had seven people for that first one, but it worked,” Mr. Motenko said.

As word of the project has spread, more people have come out to be part of it. Jeannine Ross has held a flashlight for most of the 11 photo shoots so far.

“It’s wicked fun,” she said. “I can’t describe how addictive it is. Nobody ever comes just once.”

A week or so before each shoot, Mr. Motenko visits the next bridge on his list and decides where to set up his camera.

“Anyone could take a head-on shot of a bridge, but I really want to incorporate what’s special about each one,” he said. “We also have to figure out where we need lights and how we’re going to place the people holding them.”

But he has to be flexible about that because he never knows how many people will show up.

On the evening of a recent shoot, his volunteers start gathering at the bridge around sundown. While Mr. Motenko sets up his camera, Ms. Beckett positions the light-painters where the camera can’t see them – behind trees and boulders and, in many cases, pressed against a damp, cold wall inside the barrel of the bridge.

As the sky darkens, Mr. Motenko shouts “shutter open,” and everyone paints their assigned section of the bridge with light. At the “shutter closed” signal, they stop, and Mr. Motenko looks at the image of the bridge on the laptop that is connected to his camera. After a few more takes, when he’s satisfied that he has the image he wants, he calls it a wrap.

Sean Hall’s first experience as a bridge painter was on Nov. 17, when the subject of the shoot was the Chasm Brook Bridge. Afterwards, he was hooked.

“You’re outdoors on a beautiful night. What could be better than that?” he said. “It’s a family event with a lot of good folks.”

Mr. Motenko said that, as far as he knows, the Painting Bridges Project is unique.

“No one has ever seen an image of the bridges like this before,” he said. “You could say, in a cute way, that it’s seeing the bridges in a different light. But it really is.”

Just as important as the artistic aspect of the project, Mr. Motenko said, is the way it brings people together.

“People have asked me why I couldn’t just set up a bunch of strobes and fire them off,” he said. “Sure, I could do that. But that wasn’t the intent of this. It’s all about doing it with people, a community, and everyone feeling they had a part in creating this.”

Ms. Beckett said people often attend the first time out of curiosity. But they come back because they enjoy it so much.

“We ask them to walk out at dark in the freezing cold, stand in a stream under a bridge and shine a flashlight around – and they get such a kick out of it,” she said.

Mr. Motenko’s photographs of Acadia’s light-painted bridges and gatehouses will be on exhibit next May at the Northeast Harbor Library. He plans to donate any proceeds from the sale of prints to Friends of Acadia.

“That seemed like a fair thing to do,” he said, “because so many people are participating and donating their time.”

Acadia’s carriage road bridges were built between 1917 and 1933. They were individually designed at the direction of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who paid for their construction.

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Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]