Finding the Gift #4: Light as a Tool

Throughout high school and much of my undergraduate education, light was a toy to me. I loved lighting musicals and concerts and adding to the lighting rig of my DJ business. I thought of lighting as a hobby, merely something I did in my free time, and not as a career. Sometime in my junior or senior year of college, two things happened to get me thinking about light as a tool, as a career. It took a few years to fully take effect, but looking back it is easy to see the seismic fault lines these two events created.

I do not remember lighting ever being discussed the first few years of architecture school. We learned about massing, form, structures, mechanical systems, architectural history, circulation, and more. We learned how to write like an architect (yes, they taught that) and how to draft (on vellum; they did not teach computer-aided drafting way back in the 90’s). I enjoyed the creativity and craft of architecture, the model-building and design thinking, but I was spending an increasing amount of time doing theatrical and entertainment lighting on the side. I can’t say that it was good for my grades to be DJ’ing frat parties and spending my summers in community theaters, but I had a good time in legal ways. In class, we really only talked about natural light in terms of wanting lots of windows. None of our early projects had any electric light at all.

There was just one class that covered lighting in my architecture school and most of us took it our junior year. I was not very engaged in the class and nodded off more often than I would like to admit. While I was happy to stay up until 3am to work on a design project, I did not find the same enthusiasm for lighting. It wasn’t fun or particularly creative, and I remember very little from the course. Yet this class did bring about one of the two events that began to shift my thinking.

Partway through the semester, our professor took us to a lighting manufacturer’s facility in the Chicago area on a field trip. We spent a few hours with tour guides and educators learning about architectural lighting in a purpose-built learning center that included miniature stores, homes, offices, and more with full lighting setups. They were like little stage sets, fake homes with no occupants, which I later learned to call vignettes, and fun to see. 

At lunch (They catered lunch! This was a first for me and, like most college students, the idea that someone else would provide free food was astounding.) we listened to an architectural lighting designer discuss the profession. At one point she said “all the best architectural lighting designers come from theater.” While this is certainly debatable, at that time I knew precisely one architectural lighting designer, her, and so I believed it wholeheartedly. 

“All the best lighting designers come from theater.” This was the first time I had heard architecture, lighting, and theater in the same conversation, and the invisible wall between my two interests began to crumble, ever so slightly and mostly unbeknownst to me.

It took hearing the same thing from a theatrical lighting designer to move from the “that’s interesting” category into the “maybe I want to do this category.” As I neared the end of my architectural degree I had a little time for elective credits, and I petitioned the theater department to let me into one of their majors-only lighting design courses. Professor Kathy Perkins was kind enough to let me in to one of our her classes, and I wound up spending the better part of a decade under her mentorship.

Kathy knew theatrical lighting designers who went into architectural lighting and planted the idea that “they make a lot of money.” At 21 or 22 years old, this appealed to me enormously, and I had no idea at the time she was comparing salaries to theatrical lighting designers who make way too little. At that time, any money was a lot of money to me. Kathy encouraged me to think about graduate school in theatrical lighting design, but I had a detour to make before I followed her advice.

My life has not gone according to plan, at least not for more than a few years at a time. There are countless twists and turns and surprises and failures that result in me being in a very different place than I imagined just a few years prior. One such example from my younger years is my plan to finish college, get married, and take on the role of junior architect in a local firm. I did finish school (by the skin of my teeth, as they say), I did get married (best thing ever), but I left my promising job at the architecture firm for a detour into the non-profit sector.

My girlfriend convinced me, grudgingly, to head to Mississippi to build houses with Habitat for Humanity over one Spring Break as I was studying architecture. I wish I could say that I was excited about the idea, but she pretty much had to drag me there. The week was beyond anything I could imagine, an incredible adventure and learning experience, and I had such a blast that I didn’t fight at all when she suggested we go back the next two Spring Breaks.

I was once again reluctant when she suggested that we move to Mississippi after college and volunteer full time for a couple of years, but I’m glad she won me over. While I could write a book about those years and all of the drama, joy, challenges, people, and growth, this is not that book. So let me sum up by saying that I spent a few years designing and building homes, acting as the architect, general contractor, builder, and supervisor of about 20 homes in rural Mississippi. I learned so much about residential construction that continues to inform my work today; I know how a wall goes together, what is inside of it, what is above the ceiling, what framing looks like underneath the cladding at a soffit, and this helps me understand some of the challenges with our work.

I did not use light as much of a tool during these years. My knowledge of light was insufficient to determine better methods on a very tight budget, so I perpetuated lighting “the way we always do it.” But the seeds from college were sprouting, and I was dreaming of getting back to lighting. I began to look forward to the next phase and applied to graduate school in theatrical lighting design. 

Graduate school in theatrical lighting design was almost the reverse of undergraduate school. Instead of studying architecture and playing with theatrical lighting on the side, I studied theatrical lighting and played with architecture on the side. This was an important step towards a profession in lighting for finally and firmly lighting was now a tool. I no longer thought of my affection for light as a hobby, but rather as the main event. 

I planned to pursue two masters degrees, one in architecture and one in theater, but it quickly became apparent that I could launch a career with only one. The theatrical degree was going to be the shortest route out of graduate school, so I stuck with it and plowed onwards. Graduate school was tough for me; the academics were not too hard but I struggled to balance school with my personal life. Getting done became an urgent priority, and I finished a year early.

I completed transforming light from a toy to a tool when I accepted my first job with an architectural lighting design company. No longer were my worlds separate, no longer was lighting a hobby. My first projects ran the gamut of commercial lighting design, even blending in theatrical drama on a museum exhibit in my first year. I learned from the others at the firm, soaking up as much as I could about the exciting and new-to-me world of professional architectural lighting design. 

I loved parts of the job – the exotic projects, the meetings with top-tier architecture firms in Chicago, the comradery of a firm – but my headstrong ways put me at odds with the principals and I began to look for a way out. Naively I thought, after just a couple of years, that I was ready to start my own firm, but I lacked the capital to start a company. A non-tenure teaching position in theatrical lighting opened at the university, and I thought the role would allow me the time to start my own business while paying the bills. I landed the job and headed off to academia on the three-year plan: teach, start a business, and then leave the university when my business was flourishing. 

But life had other plans for me.

You can read more of my Finding the Gift autobiographical series HERE.

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