Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mom in the Spotlight: Rachel Newton

After eight years as a professional ballet dancer, Rachel Newton traded pointe shoes for construction documents in 1998 when she enrolled in the Pratt School of Architecture. After starting her career as Principal Designer and Project Manager for various private residences, Rachel joined Elmslie Osler Architect (EOA) as Senior Designer and Project Manager. At EOA, Rachel spearheaded major overhauls of private New York residences and commercial buildings. Most of her work, however, focused on creating new retail concepts for the Anthropologie brand of Urban Outfitters, Inc. As often as possible, Rachel’s designs incorporate sustainability strategies, such as the layers of sunscreening wood slats across the fa├žade of the Anthropologie store in Huntsville, Alabama, or the reclaimed barn wood portal for the entrance of the Albuquerque, New Mexico store.  Rachel has returned to being Principal Designer and Project Manager, as a freelancer and consultant, beginning with two commercial projects: the conversion of a 5,000 square foot industrial loft space in an old brewery into an eco-friendly creative hub for the branding firm, BBMG, and the conversion of a raw space in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn into a lounge featuring artisinal cocktails and seasonal food. Rachel is also a documentary photographer, her chosen focus the work environments within obscure cultures. Her most elaborate essay is a six-year book project entitled Keep Iced that documents the Fulton Fish Market during its last days.  Some of Rachel’s honors include the 2009 American Institute of Architects New York State Design Award of Excellence and Interior Design Magazine’s 2009 Best of the Year Merit Award.

How many children do you have?  Boys?  Girls?
1 girl

How old is she?  
3 years, 4 months

Where were you in your career when your children were born?
I was doing well but putting in a lot of extra hours at a small architecture firm as a senior designer. I had been there since 2006. My daughter was born in 2008. I had freelanced prior, following graduation from architecture school and was enjoying not working in a solitary bubble.

You had a career change before motherhood came into the picture.  What made you leave ballet to study architecture?
Chronic injuries brought my ballet career to an end. I had told myself that I would stop when I reached 30, so that I could easily begin another career and not feel too old. I didn’t make it. At 26, I left Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet.  I had been attending numerous auditions and had had a great experience with a small creative company in San Francisco. Knowing, however, that there were no openings, I was not motivated to hang out, take classes, waitress and wait for someone to get injured. I also felt like my clock was ticking. Not to sound pitiful, but I did feel like damaged goods with my injuries.

I had always been interested in architecture. As a high school student, I had applied to architecture schools. After much reflection, I gave myself the chance to pursue a professional career in dance, something that could not wait. There is a shared language between ballet and architecture. Both are rooted in classical traditions organized by proportion, lines, and space. Both forms strive for and challenge the notion of Beauty. Architecture is an extension of the body, its behaviors and culture. It orchestrates a form of choreography between its occupants, tactile materials, and nature’s elements.

There is an impatient side to me to feel like I am moving forward. Upon leaving the company, I signed up for architecture classes at a state university in Texas to see if I would still be captivated by the field. I persevered, albeit with a lot of questioning. If I had been 30 and injury-free, things might have been different. After devoting over 20 years to dance, it is not an easy thing to leave. While your body is struggling to stay in its prime, you are just beginning to really mature artistically.

I still wrestle with the hard reality of sitting in front of a computer playing with lines on a screen for hours on end. I’ve gone from one extreme to the other. My knees are not thanking me in the day-to-day immobile lifestyle. Complain, complain.

When did you realize your attraction to and talent for photography?
While at architecture school at Pratt, I fell in love with photography. Every cell in my body felt alive when I was shooting and documenting the world around me. It was like a performance. I did not change majors, however, my goal was and is to always make photography a part of my life.  My daughter has taught me something about videography as she won’t stop moving.

Has motherhood changed the course of your career?  If not, how are you staying on the artistic path you originally set out on?
Yes. To the say the least, it has challenged my priorities and immediate ambitions that have always been focused on career. After a generous maternity leave due to accrued over-time hours at the architecture firm I was at, I went back part-time. And then, the recession and a loss of key clients forced the firm to scale down in employees. I volunteered to go, as working part-time was a financial wash for us. I wanted to use this time to assess my direction and my role as a creative, whether it was in architecture or elsewhere. I spoke to a lot of people and toyed with a lot of business ideas.  I started a blog about vodka and gin infusions. I am not scared to be entrepreneurial. Six to seven months into it, I agreed to partner with someone I had talked to my very first week of unemployment - someone with a vision to open a lounge/restaurant. I invested a lot of sweat-equity and money into childcare, working steadily three plus days a week for five months on the design.  Then, a lack of investment money brought it to a halt. A lot of lessons were learned. I am back to trying to find my direction.

Mothers often feel as though they are torn between motherhood and the part of them that misses doing, being or having something else.  Can you speak about this a little?
There is a lot of guilt to take on. You feel terribly guilty, not working. No matter what you read or people say, it is challenging to feel like an equal to my husband, as I am not contributing financially. When I’ve worked part-time at home, I feel guilty constantly trying to steal away to check emails, make a phone call, whatever. When I was working in an office part-time, there is conflict within when thinking about another person, not you, witnessing your child’s development. I am sure if I were working full-time, I would feel even more guilty.

However, when I am working, when I have that time to walk by myself to the subway, read on the train, get lost in my thoughts, sit down and get things done, it can feel really good.

Do you have any plans for when your daughter is in school full time and your days have a different focus?
Come the fall, my daughter will be in pre-school five days a week for a few hours, and I won’t be there. It is our first drop-off experience. I would like to be home when my daughter gets home. It would be nice to find part-time or freelance work. If it is creative, great! I actually don’t think I could take a job if I didn’t feel it was valuable or it didn’t seem challenging. And, if it pays well, that would be really great. It would be so much easier to find a full-time job than to do part-time work, or pursue my own project.  So, amidst all the floundering on my part, I just finalized my portfolio, resume and website. Right now, I am enjoying that satisfaction of completion, and I am following some leads.

What wisdom would you like to share with other mothers, especially those who might feel a loss of self as a result of motherhood?
First, talk to other like-minded moms. It really helps to hear their stories, struggles and self-questioning. It won’t feel so lonely.  But, let go of those conversations that increase the feeling of guilt or inadequacy.  A friend of mine, who happens to be single and childless, proposed that we get together bi-monthly to organize our ambitions and goals. I think that’s a tremendous idea.  I think that many of us could benefit from an inquisitive and inspiring ear.

I have a fantasy for moms and dads. There are so many parents out there, smart and creative, who because of parenthood, want more control of schedule and more satisfaction in their careers to justify being away from their child or children. I think it is a ripe culture for creative and unusual partnerships.

To view Rachel’s work, please visit

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