The Lumonics Light Brigade

Sculptor Dorothy Tanner, 93, admits she’s something of a rebel, a revolutionary.

A petite woman, Tanner declares in a soft, slightly husky voice, “There’s a certain ‘straightness’ that I can’t help but tweak.”

At an industrial warehouse complex at 73rd Avenue and Washington Street, you don’t have to be a New Age devotee to detect how the vibrations shift dramatically from the bustling outside world, upon entering Tanner’s darkened gallery and performance space, Lumonics Light & Sound Gallery.

Fountains gently burble, music pulses, and a multitude of inventive, plexiglass-based sculptures emit colorful electric light — illuminated from without and within. Time seems to slow down, spurring a certain reflectiveness.

Pointing to one of her sculptures that has radiant wings, Tanner describes it as “an angelic, transgender messenger.”

Luminous harmonics

Tanner grew up in the Bronx, a onetime “idealistic, left-wing kid,” who eschewed religion and embraced socialism, like many of her young Jewish peers. She studied sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art. During that same era, Dorothy met her husband, the late Mel Tanner, who was originally a painter who had studied underMax Beckmann. The two later opened Granite Gallery together in midtown Manhattan. The co-op was successful, she says, but the Tanners eventually felt alienated by the New York art world’s all-consuming devotion to commerce, ambition and self-centered ego gratification.

After a year of investigating life as potential expatriates in Italy and Spain, Mel and Dorothy visited her parents in Florida. Weary of traveling, they abandoned plans to continue on to San Francisco, settling instead in the Miami area. 

Then in 1969, Mel had what Dorothy describes as a transcendental experience, involving a flash of light and sudden insight: “He was altered after that. And although we had both been moving [towards] a more spiritual place . . . [Mel] became more outgoing, more wise, more inspired . . .” The concept of Lumonics (a juxtaposition of “luminous” and “harmonics”) was born. “Just say we channel,” Mel Tanner (who died in 1993) told the Miami Herald. “It doesn’t come from what’s happening here. Some comes from historic pasts, some from futures.”

As part of Mel’s vision, they set up a comforting theater space in which they not only displayed early examples of light art sculptures, but also incorporated music, and light shows featuring gels, projections, and lasers. And although the elder Tanners were popular with — and felt an affinity for — the psychedelic youth culture,  Dorothy says, “We were stoners without getting stoned.”

Gone west

Tanner was an early practitioner of yoga (“before yoga was yoga in this country”). She once consumed a strictly macrobiotic diet. For the past 40 years she’s been a vegan. She believes that — on levels or planes of existence we’re not even consciously aware of — we create our own destinies.

Tanner now suffers from macular degeneration and glaucoma. She describes her eyesight as “deplorable.” (Like many conceptual artists and sculptors, Tanner has assistance in executing her ideas.) 

During a break in the conversation, she lights a cigarette.

Tanner goes on to describe the raid that would eventually lead Lumonics to abandon Florida. In the early 2000s, her gallery and performance space held dance parties which found popularity with a young, ecstasy-taking rave crowd. Lumonics drew the ire of a local drugs task force: “They came in one night with dogs and guns, and, I mean, it was a horrendous experience. They didn’t find anything.”

After plans to relocate to California didn’t gel, Tanner and her Lumonics crew chose Colorado in 2008, “mostly because of the contrast, I think: going from low and wet to high and dry.” She calls the population here “more developed, generally,” adding that she finds “the women here amazing,” running businesses and acting as leaders. Tanner recollects how as she was growing up “[women] were second place, always. . . . I didn’t like the idea. Not that I became a feminist, as such.”

The Tanners’ sculptures, which have garnered positive critical notice over the years, have been well-received locally, as well. Lumonics has been exhibited at the Museum of Outdoor Arts in Englewood, at the Lakewood Cultural Center, and at the art gallery within Denver International Airport. And the work is always on display at Tanner’s gallery, which also hosts a variety of events, including a Qigong workshop and dance event, a UFO lecture and an alternative 4/20 party called Choose High On Life that benefited a drug treatment center (although meetings for the marijuana law reform group NORML might be held there in the future, as well, says Tanner).

When asked about Lumonics’ place within the history of light art, Dorothy Tanner says, “I think light has become, and will become, an even greater component of what is called ‘art,’ because it’s another tool, let’s say, to incorporate, and it has a quality that is very ‘other’ . . . You’re healed by the art.”

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280SalonDraft and High Times. He’s also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.

This story originally appeared in Confluence here.