Painting Islands: Uniting Community with Art

Islanders choose and light subject


My project explores participatory art using the photographic technique known as “light painting.” My goal is to bring this public art work to all 15 of Maine’s unbridged, year-round island communities.

For each island, the collaboration begins with islanders selecting a subject—a place, a landscape—that resonates most strongly within the community. A team of volunteer islanders then assembles at dusk wielding handheld flashlights to “paint” the iconic scene with light, while I create a long-exposure photograph.

Each island’s shoot preparation is with the same general framework: scout the location months beforehand to determine the exact location and angle of the camera, previsualize the subjects and areas to light and others to remain in shadow, and consider where to hide people within the area (behind buildings, behind tress or rocks, and just out of the camera’s view). Each image is captured about 20 minutes after sunset coinciding with the “blue hour,” producing the vivid blue skies.

The well-grounded, formulated plan is just a starting place. At dusk, everything about the shoot becomes organic. This speaks to the creative, artistic process and makes the evening so special. No one, not even I as the photographer, knows what will be created as a final image. So many variables: who will participate, what kinds of flashlights, where will everyone be placed, what’s the weather, and when do we declare success.

The moment itself, when islanders illuminate the most significant image of their community, is as much a component of the art as is the photograph I make that captures it.

I believe each image’s beauty reflects the community’s spirit, trust, and camaraderie. I am grateful to each island community as it embraces the project and welcomes me as a partner.

For more information and to view all the images visit:


Howie Motenko lives in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island and works as a software engineer at The Jackson Laboratory. When not behind a computer, he enjoys photographing Acadia National Park. This project was funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission and has had the unwavering, immense support of The Maine Seacoast Mission.