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How a pioneering film-industry worker turned to poetry — and to Pittsburgh

"Here it's my vision."

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About 40 years ago, Celeste Gainey graduated from New York University's film school. Though she'd studied lighting, as she was preparing to find work, her cinematography teacher suddenly suggested, "Why don't you try to be an actress?"

Back then, you see, women didn't often get jobs like gaffer, the head electrician on a film crew, responsible for executing or even designing a production's lighting scheme. But Gainey did. In short order, she was serving as an electrician on now-classic films like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. In 1974 — after struggling in a male-dominated industry — she became the first woman admitted as a gaffer to the industry's top craft union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

Gainey spent a decade in the industry — also lighting documentaries and television news programs including 60 Minutes — before starting to transition into a career as an architectural lighting designer. She was based first in New York and then in Los Angeles, with commissions including Manhattan's iconic Gramercy Tavern and Union Square CafĂ©.

So how'd Gainey become a poet — one whose first collection, the GAFFER, is new this month (see accompanying review)? Around 2007, she'd simply had enough of lighting, and found herself writing instead. She admired the work of poet Jan Beatty enough to enroll in Carlow University's graduate creative-writing program, where Beatty teaches. Gainey and her partner, novelist and screenwriter Elise D'Haene, liked Pittsburgh so much that they moved here, in 2011.

Celeste Gainey The Gaffer
  • Photo courtesy of Noel Schermaier. Book-cover art by Bec Young.
  • Celeste Gainey

After decades in collaborative fields like film and architecture, Gainey appreciates the solitude of poetry. "You always were fulfilling someone else's vision," she says today. "Here it's my vision."

The poems in the GAFFER mine her real-life experiences, including life on set with the likes of Martin Scorcese and Lucille Ball. But don't take the GAFFER for autobiography: "The speaker in the book is really a persona that comes out of my experience but is not completely verbatim of my life," Gainey says.

Nor is poetry a complete break from her lighting work. "They're extremely similar because I'm a visual person," she says. "When I'm writing, ... a visual is created in my brain that I'm translating onto the page, and I'm creating a world, really. So it's a similar thought process for me."

In any case, things are looking bright: After Gainey's Pittsburgh book launch, on March 14, look for the GAFFER to be featured in the April issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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