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Colorado Artist Uses Solar-Powered Paintbrush

Stacy Nick
Smoke and a small flame emerge from the canvas as Golden artist Mike Papadakis works on a new piece.

Amid hikers and bikers along Boulder Creek, artist Mike Papadakis is working on his latest commissioned piece -- a detailed mountainscape.

But next to his canvas, you won’t find any paint or paint brushes. All he needs is a mildly sunny day and a magnifying glass.

But instead of torturing ants or practicing his survival skills with fire starting, the Golden-based artist uses the lens and the sun’s rays to burn a design onto a wooden canvas.

“For years, people that have been painting with magnifying glasses,” Papadakis said. “It’s come to be known online as solar pyrography.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A closeup of a commissioned heliograph art work.

However, the negative connotations that come with the term “pyro” got him looking for another way to refer to his work.

“So I decided to call it heliography,” he said. “Helios -- which is the Greek root for sun and -ography, which can mean so many things. It can mean writing, it can mean communication.”

Originally, heliography was a form of communication. The military used it back in the 1800s to communicate from far away.

“People would stand on the sides of mountains with mirrors, and they would reflect the light down on the infantry to let them know who was friendly and who was not,” Papadakis said.

Depending on the size of the lens he’s using, he can produce temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees. That’s hot enough to melt glass, steel and stone. It’s hot enough to turn granite into obsidian, almost instantly.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
With a Fresnel lens recycled from an old television set, artist Mike Papadakis uses the sun's rays to burn designs into a wooden canvas

But what happens when it’s cloudy?

“The sun is the greatest stopwatch,” Papadakis said. “So rather than looking at a cloud as a hindrance, I look at a cloud as somebody saying, ‘Hey Mike, take a break.’”

And when a once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse arrives?

“The eclipse is telling me: ‘Experience me,’” Papadakis said.

Which is why on Aug. 21, Papadakis will be in Wyoming -- along with an estimated 600,000 other people -- to experience the total solar eclipse.

“I have this draw -- this attraction to the idea of this eclipse -- that I can possibly paint with the shade,” he said. “And that there is possibly even more energy in that black dot than in this bright white dot that I’m painting with every day and so I’m kind of curious to go discover that, to see if it’s possible.”

He’s not sure what will happen, but Papadakis said he’s always up for trying something new. It’s how he got into heliography in the first place.

“This started with me leaving the country and literally going on a one-way trip and trying to see all the places on Earth that I knew nothing about,” he said.

But Papadakis got tired of lugging all his art supplies with him. While visiting a friend at an artist commune in China, he got an idea.

“He had a magnifying glass on his table and I literally looked at it and it was an instant love at first sight, right,” he said. “I looked at it, and I looked outside the window and I double-taked and I said, ‘Hey, I could probably take this outside and draw with it.’”

He ditched the paint and brushes and focused solely on making art with the magnifying glass. His canvases became whatever people brought him. Wood. Stone. Cloth. Bread. Yep, bread, like toast.

“In Central Asia, you’ll find some of the best bread in the world,” Papadakis said. “A lot of it is flat, like pizza dough […] and so it was a perfect canvas.”

He gifted his art to the people he met along the way, perfecting his new-found craft and creating an almost performance-like aspect to it. When he came home, Papadakis realized he didn’t just want to keep painting with the sun: He wanted to teach others to do it, too.

“With all things in life, everything’s better when it’s shared,” he said.

Which is why whether he's working on a piece for himself or a commission for his solar printing company, Sunscribes, Papadakis works where the people are -- parks, plazas, street corners -- wherever he can share his process -- start to finish.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Mandy McLane and her son Colton, 2, of Boulder watch heliograph artist Mike Papadakis.

Boulder mom Mandy McLane and her 2-year-old son, Colton, spotted Papadakis working from across the park.

“I was expecting a painting of some sort,” McLane said. “But I was not expecting it with the magnifying glasses.”

Papadakis grabbed some extra welding goggles (he always has some on hand) so they could watch the process.

“See this dot right there? That dot. It’s a mini-mini-version of the sun. It’s like a baby sun and we get to draw with it,” Papadakis told the little boy. The toddler was transfixed by the lens sparking a small flame on the wood. “Again,” he shouted, directing Papadakis to keep turning the sun “on” and “off.”

For Papadakis, getting people to see art -- as well as the sun, itself -- differently is the goal.

“I hope that this art form can remind people to not try to block the sun out,” he said. “As much as we’re told that the sun is going to give you cancer, and that it’s harsh, and the ozone is depleting, and too much sun is not good for you. […] I guess this art form kind of challenges that.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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