The Dying Light

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

The group went from the hospital where Mel died to their Coral Springs house. "Eventually, it broke into a big party," Billard recounts. "A big celebration of Mel's life and Mel the person we cared about. From there, we decided to go on and continue what he started." They decided to keep living in Mel's dream.

They all have roles within the group. Barbara Ungar is the mother-like character, cooking and sewing for everyone. Billard is the handyman and carpenter. Raphael runs their website and MySpace page. Dorothy is the artist.

Billard began collaborating with Dorothy after Mel's death. She would conceptualize a piece and explain to Billard what she wanted. Sometimes, as Ungar is taking a vegan dish out of the oven, Dorothy will start imagining shapes in the tofu. Dorothy will explain her idea to Billard, often with a small sketch on a piece of scrap paper. From there, they go to the studio, where they have a factory with the kinds of industrial tools any high school shop teacher dreams of. Billard cuts, crafts, or otherwise creates Dorothy's vision in three dimensions. They go back and forth with concepts and approaches — "a translucent dole here," "can we get internal light there?"

c. stiles
Dorothy Tanner, 84, doesn't just want you to view her art; she wants you to experience it.
c. stiles
Dorothy Tanner, 84, doesn't just want you to view her art; she wants you to experience it.

Sometimes, a piece takes days. Sometimes, it takes years. What every piece takes, though, is money. The materials cost money — malleable shards of plexiglass aren't cheap. The tools cost money. The space costs money. "Hey, we need to eat," Dorothy says with cool charm. That certainly played a role in why they entered Art Basel in Miami.

But Dorothy also feels like it's time for their art to be seen. "We've done our own thing for a long time," she says.

But why now?

"It's time," she says. "It's just time now. It wasn't right before, and now it feels right."

After a slow preview at Art Basel, a disappointing opening on Thursday, and another slow night on Friday, Saturday afternoon was tense. It was raining. The Lumonics crew had invited friends and fans to the gallery, but by 6 p.m., there still weren't many visitors.

By the time the sun went down and the air outside cooled a little, foot traffic finally picked up. Every visitor carried a collection of plastic bags, one from every gallery he or she had been to throughout the day. The bags had cards and contact information for each artist at the shows. The Lumonics cards were white with a black and neon, abstract, interstellar image.

The crowd snaked around Lumonics.

"This has an '80s feel to it," a man said of Lumonics to his female companion.

"A lot of these things are actually from the '70s, I think," the woman said.

"Well, I guess they were ahead of their time," the man said.

When one woman asked Dorothy and Billard if they could light their sculpture that looks like a Technicolor dollhouse, they said they'd take it to their shop to see what was possible.

Dorothy Tanner and Marc Billard expanded their artistic visions after Mel Tanner died. They composed more of their own music and worked with more digital video. They produced a long-form music video, A Slow Boat to Ecstasy.

After that, Dorothy recorded a CD of "positive message poetry," Cosmic Rap. It was spoken word with new-age electronic music that Billard produced in the background. They followed with Spices of the World and Spices of the World #2.

They did commissioned work, mostly building fountains for homes and offices. The fountains were lighted with bright colors and often had water flowing over plastic discs. Each water sculpture sold for thousands of dollars. They also continued the performances.

Beginning in 2000, Lumonics got a whole new clientele. Just as an LSD fan base found a deeper appreciation of their psychedelic projections 30 years before, the Ecstasy-toting rave crowd found Lumonics. The dark, cool spaces, electronic music, and mesmerizing, glowing lights were a perfect match. Their studio became a hub for the trance scene.

"It was so great to see the kids wanting to dance with Dorothy," Barbara Ungar says. "It was just a great place to be."

If it was hard to categorize Lumonics before, it was impossible now. Between 2001 and 2004, Lumonics was given New Times' pick for Best Art Experience, Best Dance Club, and Best Art Gallery.

"But you can't do any one thing forever," Dorothy says.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department's now-defunct rave task force got wind of kids using drugs at the studio, and there was a bust. They confiscated $8,000 worth of drugs and arrested five attendees. Lumonics was cited for building-code violations. Police decided Dorothy and crew might not have known exactly what the kids were on when they were dancing all night, waving neon glow sticks, or where they got the drugs — sometimes the Lumonics parking lot.

"As far as the drugs and the kids go," Dorothy says, "yeah, that was what it was. Those dance parties were some of the best times too. And more than anything, the kids were just really cool. A different generation, but they got what we are all about. And we got them."

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