Debra Gilmore



Drawing of architectural structure.

Eagle Academy in Washington, DC, architect: Shinberg Levinas, lighting design: Debra Gilmore. Image by Alan Karchmer

Moving frequently to places where I had no friends and no siblings, I entertained myself at an early age by coloring in coloring books. By the fifth grade my teacher, who always involved the class with interesting craft projects, took a select few of us to a potter’s home studio for a tour; I loved how the house was unique with cool stuff everywhere, including a special closet dedicated to the display of shiny blue objects. The artist called it the Bower Bird’s nest. My teacher, Mrs. Brown, an eccentric bird herself, encouraged my mother to enroll me in Saturday classes at the Tampa Art Museum. We painted and sketched, sometimes outside when the Barnum Bailey circus was in town. One of my pastels was published in the local paper. Saturdays quickly became my favorite day.

In high school, I was more interested in art than academics and when it came time for career planning, my school did not have much to say about art school or any other art and design profession. Only eight percent of the graduating class went on to college. Fearing I would end up a struggling artist, my father refused to support my interest in art school, but when nursing school was mentioned, he was happy I could become independent and competent. It was the early ‘70s. Nursing made me realize that people have other needs than what could be met in a hospital setting. Needing time to ponder, and being fed up with shift change schedules, I took a leave of absence and found a job as a camp nurse at an Art Camp!

It was a metamorphic summer. I was immersed in a colorful, dynamic, interesting arts community. My eyes were opened and I knew I must start over. Luckily working with the theater department, I had coaching from the director whose real job was being a general manager of an opera company. He helped me work through the notion that 3D stage sets and costume design, which excited me, might better translate to full-time work in architecture or interiors. While I spent years frustrated with my dad’s lack of support, the nurses training served me well in other areas of life. After camp, I eagerly applied to design schools as opposed to art schools. I had learned I liked solving problems, and design I felt could benefit many at one time.

Going to design school in NYC and being comingled with students and professionals representing all the arts was affirmative about my decision to leave nursing. Rather than a summer camp thrill, it was the beginning of my new life. Thirty-three years later, and the sole owner of an architectural lighting design consulting company, I am pondering what retirement will look like. No doubt it will be within another artistic community of some type. As to finding lighting design, it was the perfect meld of art and science. I made dad and myself very happy.

On different project throughout my lighting design career, I have had the good fortune to collaborate with artists. Sometimes lighting their work, and sometimes participating in exhibitions. I have used artists’ works as precedent imagery in presenting our concepts. Art has inspired how I dress, how I see color. In our projects, color of light is carefully calibrated in the overall composition. Some of my fondest Saturdays continue to be spent in museums or galleries getting inspiration from other artists and their work. In retirement no doubt, I will return to some type of an artist’s community.