A Wilfred Lumia Composition At Play

And yet, it moves….Lumia at LACMA.

Recently I had the opportunity to view first hand an original Thomas Wilfred Clavious display, Lucatta, Opus 162, (1967) installed at the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA). Fittingly it held a special interest for those Lumia connoisseurs as it was the last Lumia display that Wilfred had created, ironically the year before he died. Lucatta, Opus 162, certainly gave weight to Wilfred’s description of his Lumia works as animated paintings.


A colored pattern of light had filled its rectangular screen and for all the world appeared at first glance as a static image sitting upon its display screen. With its random colored patterns it portrayed some abstract image where most museum viewers might not even give it a second glance. As one continued to look at the image, it became apparent that it was NOT the image you had just seen, but indeed the pattern had slowly shifted in color and shape, and by God, was moving.

Slowly the image shifted into a pattern of vertical flaring spires, its landscape taking on a reddish hue that filled its entire area. It was like seeing a fingerprint of a solar flare. With its stately shape shifting movements, Lucatta Opus 162 was definitely a sight to see, and worth more than a second glance. Truly it was an animated painting, carving out a unique one-of-a-kind medium in the realm of another dimension. In motion everything was in play its color and its shapes both synchronistically connected as the shapes took on their evocative forms so did the colors follow those forms creating a chromatic music to the light.


LACMA describes Lucatta Opus 162 as having three distinct movements; Vertical, Horizontal and Multidimensional “all endlessly interwoven to produce a composition of infinite duration.” Wilfred’s description of his work as a composition was apt as it moved around in stately grace. Wilfred with his visions of light had been building Lumia projectors since the 1920s. In 1922, Kenneth MacGowan reviewed Wilfred’s first public light art concert for The World newspaper stating, “This is an art for itself, an art of pure color; it holds its audience in the rarest moments of silence that I have known in a playhouse.


As one watches its painted movements, it’s as if the world has stood still. Now 92 years later, as new audiences watch its streaming shapes pass by there is the same reverent silence, while the painting moves, time has stood still.




The pursuit of Lumia as an art form is in the hands of a few enlightened artists eager to share its evocative imagery for the curious admirers who seek it out. Over the years there have been several Thomas Wilfred fans who have built interpretive versions of Wilfred’s various Lumia displays. Popping up at different times and locations, each new Lumia display has rekindled an interest in light as an illuminated art sculpture medium. These Lumia displays have appeared as both new reconstructed mechanical analog set-ups and as software digital reconstructions.

In varying display formats the challenge of presenting Lumia visuals to audiences has appeared for public appreciation:


The Exploratorium (San Francisco)

In permanent residence a sun powered Lumia reflector created by Bob Miller known as the Sun Painting (1969) which creates gigantic Lumia images whose movement is guided by the sun’s passage through the sky.


Burning Man (Black Rock Desert)

At Burning Man (2007) in the middle of the playa (desert) where the event is held, a monolith (about the size of a large refrigerator) appeared complete with a carpet for viewers to sit in comfort as they watched the delicate Lumia patterns weaving in between each other.

While no apes were seen lurking about the monolith, several Burners were noted to having spent untold hours sitting under the evening sky in contemplation of the various Lumia vistas that gracefully swirled across the monolith’s display screen.


Orion Lumia (a Steampunk Collectable)

While Lumia borderlines the metaphysics of what is seen and imagined, so did Will Rockwell, a steam punk art entrepreneur build Orion, a hemispheric Lumia display that would easily sit as a conversation starter in any parlor or living room.


 original Wilfred Lumia display : Lucatta, Opus 162

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

At LACMA, an original Thomas Wilfred (discoverer of Lumia) Lumia display was installed in an alcove within one of the museum’s buildings. Complete with its own private viewing space, the Wilfred Lumia can be seen as it streams its illuminated presence across its display screen.


George Stadnik

Lumia artist who produces animated Lumia art.


NM - LUMIA.jpg

Gregg Stephens

Lumia artist who fabricated Lumia Light Fall.





Light art of which Lumia is a part of has a heritage that has been explored for at least 300 years or more. That exploration has taken many forms from considering the relationship between color and music to the creation of theatrical projections from scenic wonders to transcendent phantasmagoria. This exploration has ranged and raged from philosophical discussion (even as far back as Aristotle, who suggested a correspondence between sound and color, based upon varied mathematical relationships) to experiments with whatever technologies of the era would allow. Mind you – that these ideas were being thought about way before Laserium existed. Hell, they were even in play before electricity had been discovered.

Intuitively on a philosophical level there has always been a consideration of some kind of a “linkage” between color and sound, an idea first described as ‘Visual Music’ – with the synthesis of both becoming a greater medium that either alone, at least according to its proponents. Consideration yes – but agreement not always.


Mary Hallock-Greenwalt, a musician and an inventor of her own color organ, noted in the early 1900s that…”there is no octave to color and that color has no harmonics.

1SCRIABIN.pngYet on the other hand, another noted musician / light artist, Alexander Scriabin claimed there was a symmetrical relationship between color and sound which he described by assigning equivalent notes to certain colors within his musical scores. With every light artist working on their grand device, whatever relationship there was between color and sound was strictly an opinion defined by whatever projected device they could build.


Thomas Wilfred who first presented light art (known as Lumia or the art of mobile color) in the 1920s as a form of modern public entertainment was of two minds about Visual Music. On one hand he equated a Lumia presentation as an “opus,” and much of his references to Lumia were described with musical terminology as noted by Donna Stein (Thomas Wilfred: Lumia). Wilfred also believed that light was separate from music and that music was an accompaniment to light projection, rather than an interpretation of that music.

There have always been many theories about harmonic scales where certain musical notes might parallel certain colors. While philosophers might debate the finer points of a C flat being equivalent to green, it was the light artists who would defy all arguments and build unique color organ instruments to combine the two forms and let their devices speak in their own language of Visual Music, and have the audiences decide for themselves.


Victorian color organ converges music and color  into a singular viewing experience

Thus interpretations of music and color have converged in the creation of color organs as a projected illumination musical instrument to bridge both the worlds of light and sound simultaneously. Over time a few dedicated artists, musicians and lighting designers all experimented with the mechanics of illuminated art projection. The actual device to express Visual Music was known as a ‘color organ’ of which the first notable constructions of such a device emerged somewhere in the mid-18th century.

                         VISUAL MUSIC TIME LINE             

          who discovered what when

18th century

  • Although earlier experimentations have been documented, in 1725, French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel proposed the idea of Clavecin pour les yeux which had 60 small colored glass panes, each with a curtain that opened when a key was struck. In about 1742, Castel proposed the clavecin oculaire (a light organ) as an instrument to produce both sound and the ‘proper’ light colors.


19th century

  • In 1877, US artist, inventor Bainbridge Bishop obtained a patent for his first Color Organ. The instruments were lighted attachments designed for pipe organs that could project colored lights onto a screen in synchronization with musical performance.
  • In 1893 British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington invented the Clavier à lumières.


20th century

  • In a 1916 art manifesto, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra described their experiments with “color organ” projection in 1909.


  • In 1918, American concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created an instrument she called the Sarabet. Also an inventor, she patented nine inventions related to her instrument, including the rheostat.
  • In 1921, Arthur C. Vinageras proposed the Chromopiano, an instrument resembling and played like a grand piano, but designed to project “chords” composed from colored lights.


  • In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred discovered an artistic light form known as Lumia, whose make up is defined by its components of ‘form, color and motion in a dark space.’ Wilfred goes on to equate Lumia as a space/time art. To visually demonstrate Lumia imagery, Wilfred created the Clavilux, a color organ, which was designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light.



  • In 1925, Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a text called Color-Light-Music; Laszlo toured Europe with a color organ.


  • Lightshows organically emerged by the mid-60s combining every visual projection medium that worked to converge as an illuminated visual collage that preformed mostly as a backdrop to rock & roll or classical music. A typical light show set up could employ any or all of the following devices film projectors, slide projectors, ‘wet cell’ projectors lasers (when available) and of course Lumia projectors.


  • Laserium with the use of lasers became the first continuously running commercial laser light show. The first Laserium show opened to the public on November 19, 1973, and was founded by Ivan Dryer and Dr. Elsa Garmire, a California Institute of Technology physicist both interested in laser light art. The show originally preformed in planetariums around the world, combined music (both Rock and Roll and Classical) and light into a single medium and popularized the ideas of visual music as a public entertainment.


21st century

How much of a big deal this is depends on what era you look at. At one time this was philosophical fodder to be endlessly debated. Nowadays, it’s a matter of accessibility, in the 1990s it was as simple as purchasing a ticket to Laserium. Today it’s a phone ap or a screen saver, most likely in some form of Electric Sheep.


Electric Sheep is a computing process for animating and evolving ‘fractal flames’, which are in turn are displayed as a screen saver. In effect, it becomes a mini lightshow slowly weaving its morphing forms across a computer screen as a visual interlude.

The debates about color and sound have now become personalized and more related to one’s taste in synesthetic media and a person’s like or dislike for musical or artistic light shows. As for Lumia, the light that was once lost is slowly being “discovered” again, and while it may not be the 8th Fine Art as Wilfred declared, it is certainly a fine art to be appreciated as it is.




Some people gaze at Lumia images and all they see is a blob of light. Talk about the forest and the trees, for them it is not a forest, but a desert. They don’t relate to Lumia imagery and it has no appeal to them. Fair enough. Perhaps the only light they’re familiar with is Bud “light.

One the other hand, most everyone else gets Lumia art is a big way. Lumia is a Rorschach Test which allows you to interpret the imagery in whatever context you can.


Here you have the forest and the trees and can flip back and forth trying to decide if what you saw was really there.




In the early years of Lumia trying to find it’s own niche in the fine art world, Thomas Wilfred who discovered and promoted Lumia, put forth the notion of Lumia being a form of ‘animated painting.’ Animated – definitely. But the concept of an animated painting gives one a moment of pause. Can a “painting” be animated and still be a painting? Don’t know how many people lost sleep over that; but when they finally got to sleep, maybe they dreamed of Lumia instead of sheep.


Paintings as applied to Lumia you could argue is a loose definition, but when you consider that Lumia imagery is painting with light, you might have a case. Yep, we all agree on that, but when it starts to move, is it still a painting? and if it’s not a painting – then what is it?



fueled by the cosmic winds and produced by Mother Nature

In the cosmic realm we think of the Northern Lights as God’s own Lumia light, produced by Mother Nature. The northern lights, Aurora Borealis, is suitably named (Aurora) after the Roman goddess of dawn and the Greek name Boreas for the northern wind, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621. The Aurora Borealis lighting effects appear all the top part of the Northern hemisphere and are seen mostly in the Northern latitudes of various North American and Scandinavian evening skies.


Like undulating veils of gently wind swept curtains, the Aurora Borealis wash across the night skies like turbocharged Lumia writ large across the Vault of Heaven. Those versed in Lumia patterning will immediately recognize a visual relationship between human created analog or digital Lumia constructions and Mother Nature’s Lumia sky markings.

As for the ‘real deal’ as explained by a recent Wikipedia entry:

An aurora (from the Latin word aurora to mean ‘sunrise’) is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitudes of the artic and anartic regions. The resulting illuminations are caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere). The charged particles originate in the magnetosphere and solar wind and, on earth are directed by the earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. The resulting illuminated aurora patterns vary in brightness from just barely visible to the naked eye, to bright enough to read a newspaper by at night.

Auroras seen near the magnetic pole may be high overhead and seen as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the sun were rising from an unusual direction. Varying aurora patterns often display magnetic field lines or curtain-like structures and can change within seconds or glow unchanging for hours, most often in fluorescent green.


The northern lights have a number of names through out history. The Cree call this phenomena the “Dance of the Spirits.” In Europe, in the Middle Ages, he auroras were commonly believed to be a sign from God.

God’s light or its humanistic artistic counterpart generally induce the same effect: speechless wonder as one gazes into the endless depths of celestial infinity.





the left and right brains of Lumia presentation

The realm of Lumia creations falls into two worlds that combine into a single presence of illuminated visual art. The first world is of science where Lumia is defined by optics, varying light sources, kinetic mechanics, computers and the kludging of a various collection of unknown widgets that all come together as a mechanical marvel of projected illuminated luminazation.

And then there is the art, a dance of visual poetry defined by the imagination of the viewer. Tuned in and turned on, the resultant Lumia imagery leaves no doubt that its presence is mystical, transcendent and unique – its wispy cloud-like imagery becomes a portrait of speculation and wonder as sometimes the projected imagery resembles nothing but an abstraction of animated light.


               this Lumia is very interesting as it presents two creatures who share a                          common face – or does it?

Sometimes in a very profound way the Lumia presence resembles creatures or beings from our world around us. These resembled images are startling in their mimicacy – is that a human face? a bird? or maybe a fish? This is the point of creativity where the Lumia artist and their viewers converge upon the images as the projected display unfolds its weird geometries. Here the Lumias invites the viewers imagination to just enjoy them for what they are : animated light weaving a pattern of light that just is.