The Dying Light

A neo-hippie art collective slams into the 21st Century

"Everybody sees it differently. We've had doctors bring patients to see Lumonics because they thought it would have a healing effect," Raphael says. "There is something magical about the way people experience it."

By the end of 1969, the Lumonics Light and Sound Theatre opened in the Miami studio. Some people identified with the concept of Lumonics strongly. It became an urban commune of young, like-minded, free-spirited individuals.

"One by one, people just started hanging out and sticking around," Billard says. "We all have an understanding. We all have sort of similar philosophies about life, and for the most part, we all get along."

Rondo, a sculpture of blue and red translucent ribbons, was one of the Lumonics pieces at Art Basel.
c. stiles
Rondo, a sculpture of blue and red translucent ribbons, was one of the Lumonics pieces at Art Basel.

The number of people living together got as high as ten at one point. Mel became a guru to disenchanted young people who felt they needed a purpose. The group was somewhere between Andy Warhol's Factory and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

"Mel just had an understanding of the world — a certain wisdom," Billard says. "People were always coming to him, asking him for advice and telling him their problems. And a lot of the time, he would just laugh. Not to offend anybody, but because he didn't think, in this grand picture, the problem was very significant. He saw things differently — like they say a child has an understanding of the world before he unlearns everything. It was like he had a line into that."

Billard joined the group in 1972 after drifting from job to job for years. When Mel saw his knack for making and fixing almost anything, Billard says, there was a harmonious connection.

Through the '70s, Lumonics, led by Mel, evolved with the rapidly changing technology. They incorporated lasers, quadraphonic sound, and synthesizers. An entire subculture of South Florida would go and drop acid at their shows. Lumonics was a better complement to LSD than a Jimi Hendrix solo.

By the end of the '70s, Mel and the gang had had enough of Miami. They were offered a grant to create a "future ecology demonstration" in San Diego, along with a series of videotapes teaching ecology. Mel told the San Diego Union: "People should change their environment, even their names, every ten or 15 years and they would stay younger. If you live in one habit, or habitat, all your life, it goes by fast and seems boring. Even the length of your life is affected. If life is interesting, you will live longer."

After a year, the group left Southern California, moving back across the country, this time to Bangor, Maine. "San Diego was nice for a little while," Billard says. "We did some new things and got some money, but it just wasn't right for us after that. Not long-term."

In Maine, they converted a gutted bank into another otherworldly technology-art space. After a year there, they moved to Boston. They became a commercial studio and designed sets for television news shows and art for a large grocery-store chain. After a short stint there, they found themselves headed back to Florida in 1985, this time to Fort Lauderdale.

"It was really an accident," Raphael says. "Mel and Dorothy just came back through here visiting as the group decided where to move to. We decided Fort Lauderdale was a good location because we're close enough to Miami or Palm Beach but far enough from the environment we left in the '70s."

They bought some inexpensive commercial property near the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in Coral Springs and opened another Lumonics studio. They developed a small theater between their showroom and their industrial work space, where they created their sculptures and other art structures.

In 1987, they started a two-year exhibition at the Boca Raton Gallery, where the directors built a new wing for the light sculptures. Gallery owners told Mel and Dorothy they could build more, with newer, more expensive technology, but they'd need a commitment to exhibit at the gallery for at least ten years. That was unthinkable for the nomadic Lumonics folks.

"We had a good run there," Dorothy says. "We made some money. They made some money. Everyone was happy, and we went our separate ways." Except for a small, short show in Coral Springs, the Boca Raton show was the last public display for Lumonics outside their small studio.

They began putting on performances regularly, each a unique, live show of projected light art. Since it was in their studio, they had full control over everything — the lighting, the sound, even the scent in the theater, controlled with incense. Some shows went on deep into the night. No matter what other projects came and went, they always went back to the performances. Always back to the experiential, the kinetic. Although they no longer participated in the art community, their own events were all about the social interaction, "the group vibe," they called it. But it was always on their terms.

When Mel Tanner died in 1993 of an aneurism, at 68, the group lost its mentor, Dorothy lost her husband, and Lumonics lost its foundation. "Nobody was really sure what the next step was at that point," Billard says. "Some people figured maybe we'd go our own ways."

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