Solar Panel Study Guide

by Anna Bonesteel

Illustration by Jeff Egner

published March 17, 2017


To preface: I study painting.

It’s necessary to give this small byte of background information, as I’m using an editorial voice that can’t pretend to be an authority on much of anything, especially thermodynamics, and my conscience holds me to a certain standard, truth-wise. 

I have a narrative theory that needs a scientific test: the technology of coincidences on a formal level, the speed of bullshit, the uses of story-telling. I have a scientific question that requires a bit of narration to pull together. So, the operation handshakes quite nicely.



The first time I encountered a solar panel in a real pondering way was late last October. Jeff and I had gone on a long drive down North Main, querying about some Craigslist junk, picking up old tires and stuff. Before finding the panel in question, we had stopped at a Drive-through Dunkin Donuts (DDD) to power up. Jeff ordered a hot coffee, and I ordered an iced one—I guess there was some interpretational indecision about the velocity of Winter’s approach. 

At the DDD, the coffee-matter does not matter. It exists only as its quality, size, and condition—my iced coffee became, in the transaction, an “ICED,” and Jeff’s small, hot coffee became a “SMALL HOT.” Someone had made a mistake with the computer, and an extra “small hot” was prepared for our order. Holding both heat frequencies on the drive through Pawtucket, I had an idea for a hot new coffee flavor, “WARM.” It would speak the weird frequency-spanning language of something losing heat—maybe a bit like a lizard’s cold-blooded and flickering tongue. 

Artists do not think much about temperature. In fact, the temperature-factor is figured around the art-object. In glass and wood boxes, in storage, etc., it’s all plotted (boringly) to “stay still.”


The solar panel was westward-facing in a strung-out cul-de-sac, just past a junkyard of smooshed plastic cars. After keeping an eye on them for what has now been a little while, it feels like solar panels are on every available surface. What made this one noticeable beyond material ubiquity was its specialized hardiness and its temperamental, hobby-like craft. It wasn’t on a roof, first thing; instead, the tenant had constructed this sort of A-frame support for the panel itself, and a lower-down, V-shaped nest for its battery and wiring.

A solar panel user can choose how deep in the grid they stick themselves. On the drive back, I was bouncing with the seven coffees in my palms, and Jeff and I began wondering what it would take to really go solo. I mean, to skip the obvious ways of divesting oneself of a conglomerate electromagnetic overseer—like not using power in the first place, or scrounging around for solar subsidies and rebates—and kicking the Resistance up some major notches. This would mean working out a way of living in the (power-generating) moment—but a moment that’s “done-oneself.” Resistance unreliant on rhetoric—beyond crude individualism. 

“Load defection” is the term power companies use for a solar user stockpiling personal power instead of reinvesting excess energy in the grid. 

I heard in my Contemporary Art class the other day that after WWII, art was identified as the last and only hand-made thing following the mecha-industrial wave-crash.

Handmade, personal power: painters and off-the-gridders both churn through a cultural-DIY lifestyle. 

It is a slippery slope from good-hearted sustainable individualism to hosting a sick [solar] power complex. 




After seeing the first solar panel, I decided to make one. This did not feel like such a whack job idea, because there is good precedent. Solar panels are light-filled, power-generating panels. A good percentage of each Rembrandt painting is about light (as Craig says, “the symbolic use of light was Rembrandt’s deal”). A good percentage of Rembrandt’s paintings, also, are on panel. 

The thing is, solar panels look like “the grid,” so endeavoring to be “off of it” is a bit of a linguistic inaccuracy—or, a joke. In the 21st century, some paintings are all punch-line, but good paintings can avoid pulling fast ones. I think a slow formal query can override immediate impulse, and luckily, here, they seemed already to have it all. The flatness, the strange reflectivity, the fractured, opulent blue. In terms of the object’s construction, I started to think of the solar panel painting as an Agnes Martin-Jasper Johns supercombine. 

The truth of the matter, that the solar panel painting would actually be a life-size, wooden, and inoperative solar panel, was a slow joke that revealed itself as sustainable as I worked through the problem.



Some paintings I like are generative. There’s a grade-school kind of interactivity about them, plus, a real heat. In Alfred Jensen’s work, for example, the paintings aren’t so much about expression or meaning as much as they are about hammering out a logic, a number-current, that interlocks above the surface to push this fairly specific network that is both giddy and criptic. Human eyes ricochet about the painting-board-thing as they try to figure something out. 

Solar panels are independently generative. The entrance of this independence complicates the role of human eyes, which naturally attempt to resolve a formative back-and-forth with extant objects. The slow-but-steady, cow-like attitude of the solar panel tilts off-balance the usual crux of debate. Interactivity presumes two opposing walls against which to bounce.

What is bouncing around the painting if our eyes are not there? 

If a tree falls on the A-frame support in the cul-de-sac, and no one’s…?

With a solar panel, the answer to the first question is brief. Sunlight.

Under light, the flat of the painting becomes a perverse forest, and human eyes attempt to analyze the generational energy of the sun’s watch, the atomic condition of a calculation.

The thing about paintings and solar panels is that you really shouldn’t be handling either of them. 


I visited a few solar farms in December, trying to gather some information for my arts and crafts project. The farms are massive—really unlike the household panel groups I would find on walks and looking out car windows. I spent some time online, tracking these things down. Solar farms don’t have names or coordinates most of the time, and nothing was indexed particularly well. I had to chronologically trace news articles that described new farms as being “now,” the largest in the state.

Luckily, the day I went, I was in a good mood. Visiting a solar farm is like visiting a field of cows, where all the cows are either asleep or dead.

Malcolm and I rented a Prius. We visited three farms, some large (2 football fields) and some smaller (1). I took pictures only with a 35mm camera. This turned out to be a good move. At one of the solar complexes, “No Photography” was allowed, but I could not delete photos off my film and the back of the camera is tricky to get open. The guard, I imagined, would have had some mild-to-moderate moral panic about asking me to destroy the entire roll. 

Sunlight doesn’t poke holes in things, but what if the resulting abrasion was so incredibly slight that it was not perceivable by tool or instrument? 

The security at the largest farm was military-grade. The roads were bare. Bald. Figures in the landscape seemed taller, the center of attention was dense and particular, the great breadth was underused. Our perceptive dominion maintained the sight/site relationship; what held the terrain would otherwise be prone to lapse. Light overtakes heat, as a connective value. As long as there is no precipitation. 




Connector-code of the light to the space problem:

The light pokes holes,

Connector–ode. The purpose of which is

to beautify by complicating. 

And then, to compile.

Cars may be morphologically grouped into the animal sort they represent or would sit with at the dinner table. Homology has a negligible effect on empathy, until one encounters a cow.




1. Solar panels are arranged like cows on farms. 

2. There is a new row of parking meters on Brook Street, and they are implanted directly into the sidewalk. Solar powered, like you might predict. They really get in the way. I say, they stand there and block our path, like people in line. Jeff says, like people, you feed them. I say, yes. 



I did actually make a solar panel painting. To start with, I did a lot of materials research. I didn’t want to make a solar panel with silicon, but, in order to generate, I needed to make some substantial material discoveries. Probably the best one I had was that, if you mix graphite powder with an acrylic base, the paint becomes 

    A. conductive, and 

    B. beautiful.

Et cetera. It is still large and in charge, leaning against the wall with an ungainly sloop. I haven’t decided what should happen with it next. I think the solar panel painting is longer term than I imagined. It’s a real image-sculpture now, and I am invested in it. It is OK as a monolith; it is easier to look at this way and could almost be a person. Ideally it would be installed outside. I might run some tests; I am not sure how the presence of actual sunlight will affect its artistic and communicative performance. 



In the moment of a communicative performance, one variable—sustainability—generates the envelope. Watching from the car-window, Ma’s Donut in paw, back burning from the glare of Newport’s hard windmills. In transitional spill theory, hot coffee, knocked over, is not hot, but a problem. 

Disarming a solar narrative directive could be just a change of clothes, like misreading the temperature outside. 

ANNA BONESTEEL RISD’18 is looking at what the cat dragged in.