Dorothy Tanner is 90 years old and has both glaucoma and macular degeneration, yet continues to create art. “Sprightly” is an adjective that might spring to mind when you meet the artist, a wisp of a woman with a firm handshake and brilliance to match her gleaming sculpture.
Her Plexiglass art ranges in style from free-standing glowing Art Deco shapes to calming desktop water fountains to an alien princess or kaleidoscopic abstractions. The luminous pieces are lighthearted, many even flamboyantly playful and youthful. Asked whether she feels 90, Tanner replies, “Today I feel about 75. Yesterday I felt about 50, but tomorrow I could feel 110.”
The attraction to light is ageless. Tanner’s art employs light and sometimes sound as tranquility-inducing components. Tanner exhibits her glowing sculptures at Lumonics, a magical multi-sensory gallery tucked into an industrial strip of Denver. The space includes Tanner’s studio where she’s assisted by Marc Billard, her fabricator-collaborator.
A Legacy of Light
Tanner continues the legacy of light sculpture spawned in 1969, with her late husband Mel Tanner. Lumonics in Denver is the second incarnation of the Tanners’ inspired multi-sensory gallery. The couple opened the original Lumonics in Miami, Florida, during the height of the seventies hippie movement. Lumonics exhibits both Dorothy and Mel Tanner’s sculptures. Each piece stands alone, yet the cumulative effect of the installation generates bliss. Sculptures glow and colors morph, casting light here, shadow there. Fountains trickle, water animates and reflects colors on tiers of illuminated Plexiglass. The cumulative effect of the light sculptures aglow in the hushed gallery is almost like being in a church when sunshine floods through stained glass windows.
“What you let in is the universe that you don’t spend time in because you’re so busy with computers or thinking about what you need to do even when you don’t need to do anything at that moment,” Tanner says. “We don’t spend very much time in the present, or with the self on a very important level which is who you are and what you may be.”
Tanner intentionally designs sculptures that serve as portals to serenity. “They bring you into a quieting, soothing, meditative, kind atmosphere. Some pieces are not static. Since they change, whether you perceive it or not, your perception of them is also altered. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever,” Tanner says. “It’s a health-giving medium. The sculpture creates an atmosphere that’s quieting, soothing, meditative, kind. People look very nice and mysterious with changing colors and shapes crossing their faces. And this is color and light and art that we can focus on.”
Tanner’s ouvre includes more than 300 illuminated Plexiglass works. “Plexiglass transmits light in a particular way. It creates some of the ambiance,” says Tanner.
“Using LED light, the sculptures do not draw a lot of energy. We’re using technology to counter the not-so-wonderful effects of the other side of technology—the anxiety and compulsion and all kinds of stuff that’s not very healthy mentally.”
A Versatile Medium
Plexiglass is a versatile medium, and Tanner’s sculpture includes a variety of looks. Some Plexiglass resembles cracked ice or hard candy or etched glass. Tanner draws inspiration from all over, and she works primarily to please herself
. “That’s my absorption—to please myself. And then probably it will please others.” To assure satisfaction, Lumonics offers a leasing program for as little as $50 per month, according to Lumonics assistant Barry Raphael. “We apply whatever has been paid in leasing to the purchase price,” he says.
Illuminated sculpture adds life to any décor. One client has leased six or seven pieces, mingling the light sculpture with her antiques and houseplants. “They’re wonderful with foliage,” says Tanner. “And they’re great to stimulate creativity in an office,” Raphael adds, noting that Lumonics is working on an installation at a children’s museum.
To make Tanner’s light sculpture more available to collectors, Lumonics soon will release a limited edition of “Merlin’s Wand.” The deep blue piece appears intriguing from bot
h sides,casting a wash of blue light mirroring the color of the third-eye chakra—the seat of intuition.
Tanner’s artistic process remains a mystery to her: “It’s by the seat of my pants,” she says. “I am less inclined to do painting now for the reason that my color sense is not as it was.” Yet when we speak of the color of a sculpture, she distinguishes a fine line between indigo and cobalt blue. Tanner appreciates the reflective nature of her artistry: “I’m quiet. It’s another state that I enter into. I’m able to allow it when I’m not moving about and doing all the doings.”
Lumonics is open by appointment or for community events such as monthly Peanut Butter Jamz, with admission a jar of peanut butter or jam that the gallery later delivers to local food pantries—proof that the light art inspires more than navel-gazing.
Dorothy Tanner's work will be shown at an exhibit at DIA, February through early May. Titled "A Light Journey," the exhibit will be installed in the Art Gallery in the 5th level of the main terminal.
BIO: Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is the author of the acclaimed novel Glass Halo and the gift book Laid-Back Skier.