Q&A: Dorothy Tanner, 94, on Lumonics, Her Light-Based Art Form


Dorothy Tanner stands with her “Messenger” mixed-media sculpture, created in 2012. Photo by Hayley Woodward

Light, music and art combine for a wild, psychedelic ride at “Then & Now: A Retrospective of Light-Based Sculpture,” the first retrospective exhibit of the work of Dorothy and Mel Tanner, on display now at  The Museum of Outdoor Arts, headquartered inside the Englewood Civic Center.

The couple invented the artistic expression Lumonics in Miami in the 1960s, after experimenting with Plexiglas and the way it emits light into a beautiful array of colors. The Tanners discovered it was essential to experience the art partnered with additional components such as music, electronics and a variety of other platforms in order for audiences to engage all their senses. By doing so, they also discovered an added bonus: potential healing qualities from the lights and sound.

Mel Tanner passed away in 1993, and Dorothy, now 94, relocated to Denver in 2008, where she has continued to create new work using several types of elements and mediums. Her process includes sculpting, painting, sandblasting and baking Plexiglas into different shapes in order to build endless creations of sculptures, small to large, flat to free-standing and even some water sculptures.

We caught up with Dorothy at the recent “Then & Now” opening, where she talked about Lumonics, music and the MOA.

Tell us about the beginnings of Lumonics.
“It was an evolution that came about in two ways. It was happening at that time in the ’60s. There was a lot of (great) music, light and an incorporation of it all. We had just begun to work with Plexiglas and began to light it—not just as a stage decoration but as a piece of art. Mel had been a painter and had an exquisite taste of color. I had done sculpting and I really wanted to use color, but I did not want to paint sculptures. I loved wood and grain but it was very confining. The material of Plexiglas allowed us to build shapes and use color—so the two of us got interested in that. Mel had an epiphany around 1969. After that, we focused on the incorporation of music, which we had begun to do anyway. After the epiphany, we felt it was mandatory to share it with people and thought it was the right way to do be doing it.”

What makes the perfect combination for Lumonics? The music? The light?
“The idea of Lumonics is the incorporation of all of the senses, which is what we had developed when we ran our theater in Florida. Music was always an essential component—then the sculptures and the light. We did concerts. The idea was to involve people with it. They would come into a darkened space and lie down on bean bags, so they weren’t sitting straight in a chair. Relaxing. Chilling out. Very dark. People would start getting a little nervous with the lights out. We would bring the music up kind of slow, then the lights and we would go into our first number, which was usually something with high energy. The lights would start going a little more, so they would get energized. Finally, we would go into more emotionally, quieting and stimulating music. Sometimes, classical; something like the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2″ or Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air for the G String,” which was transposed into an orchestral piece that was really dynamic and very beautiful.”

What makes MOA a great location for this exhibit?
“Well, MOA has really been a blessing, but that doesn’t quite capture it. There’s a kind of energy here. This place has a certain kind of flavor to it. I think it will continue to evolve. I don’t really have a clue yet, as to how. I think it was time for us to get Mel’s work, and some of my own, out of crates that I haven’t even seen in about eight years. He had a heck of a talent, too. That part pleases me the most—letting his work out and sharing it with people; work that I enjoyed very much. Also, I know that the work—the light and somehow the combination of everything—seems to have a quieting and healing effect on people.  I never really cared all that much about selling work, even though you’re an artist and you gotta live. This work somehow has to serve more than just a family or small group. I think art has the power to serve people, along with music.”


Dorothy Tanner’s “Floating” Mixed Media Sculpture from 1992. Photo by Hayley Woodward

Then & Now: A Retrospective of Light-Based Sculpture By Dorothy & Mel Tanner
WHERE: MOA Indoor Gallery, 1000 Englewood Parkway, Second Floor, Englewood
WHEN: Now until March 24, 2017
COST: Free (thanks to City of Englewood and Scientific Cultural and Facilities District)

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