Holiday lights are coming down, but an illuminated art exhibit is brightening downtown Denver.
“Lumonics Mind Spa: Light Intersection” is visible through several windows of Understudy Gallery at 14th Street and Stout through January 30. The installation is viewable from the sidewalk, free to visit any time, and recommended after dark.
“Light Intersection” electrifies Denver’s Theatre District
The Lumonics light art exhibit is visible via the sidewalk at Denver's Understudy Gallery
Artists Mel and Dorothy Tanner grew up during the Depression: Mel in Brooklyn, Dorothy in the Bronx. Mel served in World War II. One of the first students under the GI Bill, he attended the Brooklyn Museum School of Art, where Dorothy also took classes. The two met and married a year later. They went on to run art schools, cooperatives, galleries, and even a business creating unique sculptures for the headquarters of companies. After a while, done with New York, the Tanners traveled to Europe.
Lumonics began upon their return from Europe in 1967. Inspired by the European scene, Dorothy and Mel set up shop in Miami, Florida and continued collaborating on public immersive arts experiences, gallery installations, projections, live painting, soundscapes, meditation rooms, and their renowned acrylic light art sculptures, the latter now on display at Understudy.
Publicist and Archivist Barry Raphael and sculpture fabricator and Studio Instructor Mark Billard joined Lumonics in the early 1970s within six months of each other, enamored with the creative expression of Lumonics projects.
“I had been looking for something to do with my life — something interesting,” said Billard. “When I first walked in the door of Lumonics, it just opened up a whole other world for me. It was a space for artists without limits.”
The exhibit at Understudy honors over forty years of the team’s intricate light creations — and marks an evolution of the Lumonics legacy. Dorothy, who received the Denver Mayor’s Arts and Culture Award for innovation in the Arts in 2018, passed in July at the age of 97. Mel passed in 1993 at age 68.
The Lumonics experience continues today with Raphael, Billard, and his partner Barbara Billard running the Lumonics Light & Sound Gallery in Denver. The trio continue to exhibit Dorothy and Mel’s sculptures, including exhibits at the Thornton Arts & Culture Center, Museum of Outdoor Arts, and the McNichols Civic Center Building. They operate the Lumonics Light Art School, formed by Dorothy and Mark Billard in 2008, to “teach a new generation of light workers,” said Raphael.
The Lumonics origin story itself starts with a beam of light.
“Lumonics came as the result of an experience that Mel had,” said Dorothy Tanner, describing the events in a 2017 interview with Cynthia Madden Leitner of the Museum of Outdoor Arts.
In the late 1960s, Tanner said, the couple was walking to a diner to get a bite to eat while installing artwork at a nearby gallery.
Walking across a parking lot, Mel looked up at an airplane. As Mel looked up, a light bounced off a wing of an airplane, then Mel immediately saw a reflection of himself standing on the other side of the parking lot looking back at him. He was never quite the same.
“Mel described it as kind of a transference,” said Raphael. “After that, he was very changed.” Mel became more social, Raphael said, and was able to travel via car without needing a map. “Mel referred to it as ‘The Hit,’” said Raphael. “It really affected him deeply. It shook him up quite a bit.”
“He was changed by that flash of light,” said Dorothy.
“And that was the start of Lumonics,” laughs Raphael. “He decided to open up this experience for people.”
Early immersive experiences welcomed visitors to their Miami studio beginning in the late 1960’s.
“People would come, they would wander around for a bit. They’d sit down. We had a beanbag type floor, so it was all very comfortable,” Dorothy said.
“It was filled with light sculptures,” said Raphael. “Mel and Dorothy had a projection booth upstairs in the mezzanine. And they would create these experiences for people using the light sculptures which were connected to a color organ so that they could control it manually or through music, and then they did live projection. Mel’s background as a painter really came through, because he would create these live paintings for the audience. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience for people, created just for that moment. And the experience was quite mesmerizing.”
“Mel and Dorothy took their artwork and really put it into a whole art experience,” said Raphael.
When the team moved to Denver in 2008, they exhibited in galleries on Santa Fe and, Raphael says, felt supported by the local scene.
The team looks forward to a time when Lumonics can interact more personally with its audience. “Watching people experience the art is one of the biggest perks,” said Billard. “Just inviting them into this space. I’ve watched people interact with passed relatives, and make amends with things in their lives in the meditation rooms; and go to other worlds in their minds,” he said.
“It just triggers something from within,” said Raphael.
Raphael says they would like to start a foundation to house all of the Tanner’s work in one space, combined with the Lumonics art school, where students create lighted cubes and columns like those the Tanners explored in their early days. An ideal facility, Raphael said, would also include an event and healing center for the pubic. They dream of holding classes once again. In the meantime, Lumonics has selected a few of Dorothy’s more compact works to reproduce as limited editions. The Lumonics experience continues with an exhibit on deck for the opening of Meow Wolf Denver, currently planned for late 2021.