I first met Dorothy Tanner about ten years ago, dancing among a crowd of sweaty bodies. I didn’t know I was looking for an petite elderly woman, I just knew I wanted to meet the extraordinary artist I’d heard so much about.
Dorothy Tanner is the founder of Lumonics; an unusual gallery in Denver, Colorado, featuring the LED lit Plexiglas sculptures she creates. Lumonics hosts workshops, school field trips, yoga classes, meditations, and music events of all kinds. So, when a DJ friend of mine landed a gig there, I went with great anticipation.
As I wandered into the darkened gallery dream space filled with the soft glow of whimsical sculptures that looked like abstract life forms and alien space ships, I knew I’d found something special. The outside world seemed to disappear, and I suddenly realized that I had just entered a gateway into a new dimension where…
…imagination won over rules and questions reigned over answers.
Where is she? I asked my friend; he pointed into the crowd of dancers.
I assumed I was looking for a young hipster. Instead, I found Dorothy’s tiny, bobbing elfin figure (maybe 4’11” and 89 lbs. if you stretched it a bit) covered in . . . My God! . . . wrinkles! She cavorted to the music in and around people less than half her age. Heck, a third her age and plenty who were less than that.
She spied me as I danced, inconspicuous at the back of the room. She careened a few steps toward me and stopped. Another few steps and stopped again. Like a panther stalking a bit of juicy prey, she never took her piercing blue eyes off me.
When she finally reached me, she cocked her head, took my face in her hands and asked, “Who are you, and why are you here?”
“I’m Candace,” I answered, “And I’m here because you called me.” I didn’t mean by telephone, but she already knew that.
I had never met anyone like her before: A true visionary. A trailblazer. A successful artist. A Russian Jew raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents escaping the ravages of the Great War. On the flip side, a pampered WASP with roots going back to the Mayflower, I grew up in the pasty homogeneity of the American Midwest. A very unlikely pair we made; Dorothy was everything I was not.
Bored in the 20s and 30s Bronx educational system that emphasized homemaking and secretarial skills for women, Dorothy secretly studied works of the greatest 19th and 20th century thought leaders in the areas of philosophy, politics, literature and music. In the 1930’s she joined the Communist Party and played a key role in bringing organized labor into the garment industry. She wasn’t merely interested in improving the industrial conditions threatening the physical wellbeing of working class Americans; she wanted to shatter their acceptance of a lumbering status quo that threatened the freedom of their minds.
Her work in the world of art is no different, although her approach is now playful, peaceful and mindful. Still striving to illuminate the obstacles that limit our imaginations, she uses a color palette of LED lighting that…
Her interest in selling her pieces doesn’t extend much beyond her ability to pay the bills. Dorothy’s real passion lies in immersing people in a light-filled, sound-imbued matrix that…
…teleports them out of their external distractions into their internal truth.
To be sure, I breathe and relax more deeply upon entering her gallery. My mental chatter stills. My judgments fade. My body sways with the ever-present music she plays with a creative quietness and ease. And my heart opens in compassion to those around me – including myself. I feel replenished, whole, and open to seeing my life in terms of its possibility instead of its constraints.
But our relationship has carried us deeply into the stories of our past, the magic and miracles of our present moments together, and the challenges that we know face us in the future. She laughs at my various ineptitudes, criticizes my decorating style, claps like a little girl when I bring her gifts, and tolerates me patiently when I nuzzle her.
Most importantly, she keeps me accountable for managing and overcoming the tyranny of my own logical mind. I get away with nothing around her. A seemingly innocuous statement on my part that “I’m not very good at something” or a complaint that “I’ve inherited my mother’s bad something or other” is always met with a stern discussion about why I would want to limit my existence that way.
Dorothy turned 93 on January 30th. Getting up for her morning Qigong routine takes a little more effort than it used to. The aches in her delicate bones annoy her. Digesting her meals require more thought in their preparation. Hearing and engaging in conversations is more tedious. Translating her internal vision into its ultimate 3D splendor for a piece of art takes a little more assistance from her helpers. And the irony of her failing sight through glaucoma and macular degeneration isn’t lost on her. These signs of aging all challenge her assertion that we have the ability to control our existence through the power of our beliefs, our words and our actions. To that end, Dorothy faithfully makes her art.
I don’t know how much longer I will be blessed with Dorothy’s presence in my life – at least on this earthly plane. She may not know why she called me into her life, but I can think of several reasons: To open my mind. To heal my wounds. To see my potential, and cultivate my creativity. But, it was also to give me the opportunity to serve. To hear her, touch her, comfort her, dance with her, to make her laugh. To be by her side up to, through, and beyond her life on this earth. A greater gift I could never imagine.
Who are your unlikely friends? What gifts have they brought into your life? Go ahead, give them a shout out here in the comments! And, a phone call to them, is sure to be appreciated.
Photographs and article written by: Candace A. Hill, the all around lovely WASP and a vibrant goddess!