There’s a child-like quality to the work of Denver artist Lori Kanary (that’s “canary,” as in the bird), but it has more to do with the materials she uses than with the images she creates. She makes her art out of Lite Brite.
Lite Brite? Back when Kanary was just starting to chirp, Lite Brite was a popular kids’ toy; basically a light box covered with a screen into which translucent plastic pegs were punched to form glow-in-the-dark patterns. “It was considered high-tech in the early 80s,” she said. “You could sit in a dark room, plug it in, and let your imagination go wild.”
Fast forward to 1999. The Denver Art Museum has mounted a show of French Impressionist paintings and the whole city is going bazingas with Impressionist inspired shows at local galleries, and commemorative French specials at area restaurants. Swept up in the madness, Kanary gets the, uh, brite idea of creating a giant replica of Monet’s “Impression Sunrise,” not in paint, mind you, but in Lite Brite. “I wanted to make the toy bigger than life,” she said. “It’d be the first work of its kind in the whole country.”
She approached Red Shift Gallery at 22nd and Broadway with her idea, and they jumped in big time, even contributing a 5 X 7 light box to the project. Kanary, for her part, went out and scored an appropriately-sized sheet of aluminum with the same hole pattern as the toy. The initial plan had been to project an image of the original onto the screen, but instead, she wound up free-handing it.
“I got so focused that I can’t even remember doing it,” she said. “I was like a robot. I’d look at the picture and insert the pegs. My fingers were bleeding, but I loved the idea so much I was determined to get it done.”
Her efforts did not go un-noticed. The Denver Art Museum mentioned it in their official brochure. They also contacted the “Guinness Book of World Records” who in turn called Kanary. “I was working at the Auraria Book Store at the time and it was a total surprise,” she said. “But at 62,856 pegs, it was the largest Lite Brite painting in the world.”
Now on permanent display at the Hollywood Guinness Museum, the piece is no longer the world’s biggest. Her record was shattered in 2007 by artist Mark Beekman, who produced a Lite Brite replica of da Vinci’s Last Supper. “It was twice as big as mine,” Kanary said. “Five by eleven and 120,000 pegs. But by then I’d pretty much had it with Lite Brite.”
Well, maybe; maybe not. Because later that year, she was approached by an ad agency wanting to know if she’d do a Lite Brite for their client, Asics Running Shoes. Asics would provide the image – a Lite Brite inspired running shoe – plus an 11 X 14 aluminum frame, which would make this particular Lite Brite hands down the biggest in the world.
Kanary couldn’t resist. She rented a studio, hired a half-dozen art students, and flat got after it. Working day and night with her peg pushin’ posse — not to mention Mom and Dad, and the 90-year-old father of her technical assistant — Kanary managed to complete the piece in just under two months. “I was really stressed,” she said. “I may have just been allergic to the epoxy we were using, but I broke out in hives.”
Guinness flew to New York in August 2008 for the launch party, and actually counted every freakin’ one of the 347,004 pegs it had taken to build the piece. Once again, Lori Kanary was the undisputed world champion of Lite Brite humongousness.
She’s philosophical about the fact that her record was broken three years later. Performance artist Rob Surette built a 9/11 tribute that was 20% bigger and used over a half-million pegs. “Guinness records are meant to be broken,” she said, “no matter what.”
Yeah, but would she do it again? “Maybe for a million dollars,” she said. “I might try to beat the record. You never know.”
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