Change and Reinvention: The Art of Navigating your Art or Design Career

by Atim Annette Oton


Change is one of the hardest places to get to or to do as an artist or designer, I know. Since graduating from architecture school in 1991, I have been strategic about making change and reinventing myself and career. The 1991 recession made me realize that it would be 10 times harder to get a job and after reading an article in the New York Times about an architect driving a cab because he could not find a job. I sat back and really took stock of reality and decided to go to graduate school.

An ornate clock with the words Time for Change on its face
As I went through the process, I decided not just to focus on architecture but to go into what was going to be vital 10 years down the line: energy and environmental studies. I also decided to re-brand myself by going to one of the best schools in the world – The Architectural Association in London. The re-branding worked, as 2 years later, I returned to New York which was still in a recession and got a ton of interviews. But, I was looking to work in a firm that was a solid brand too, so I did the “relationship connection” thing and reached out to my former undergraduate dean to work in his firm.

I stayed in architecture for 5 years and started realizing it was changing, not for the good but for the worst. Knowing this, I begun talking with others and took on 2 outside projects that would eventually re-brand me. The first was Blacklines Magazine, my first foray into publishing. The other was the African Burial Ground Interpretive center which my team won and lost after our construction firm partner IDI Construction folded while waiting for the government to move ahead with the project. These two projects were about taking risk in my 20’s and defined my second stage of change and more so, reinvention. Since I knew there was something amiss in architecture, I also began looking to teach and ended getting an adjunct position in New Jersey teaching interior design. I also quit working my full to job and became a full-time instructor. This was the point when I realized that I had enough of traditional architecture practice and had no plans to return to it. My teaching led me to Parsons School of Design and through a contact (who I did not know at all), I sent my resume and in less than a week was hired to be the Associate Chair of Product Design.


Some might say Wow but I say as repeated to me by my former boss, “I was hired because of the magazine and the African Burial Ground project”. He said it showed risk, tenacity and the ability to implement things which is what he needed. I did so at Parsons for 6 years and in the process changed my career track and re-invented me.


The Parsons brand and the title gave me a tool to work on several projects; more importantly, it also gave me time to work on my third shift…the invention of Calabar Imports, my foray into retail and product design, plus Calabar Magazine, my foray into publishing.  My retail reinvention came through travels across the world at Parsons and personally. It was a shift from architecture and academia but it was about a desire to design things, to curate, to share and educate. It was also about becoming independent, a self employed person, whose choices and decisions were not determined by others. That shift in thinking was the point of reinvention. It is the place of radical change, one that creates a road map forward and takes determination to keep, nurture and hold steadfastly to.
After 7 years since leaving Parsons and full self employment, I am at fourth place of change: this time, I would call it global expansion. In this place, it is about working across continents, developing products, teaching design, developing curriculum and expanding my small retail empire. It is also a place of collaboration and partnerships, one that is Brooklyn-centric and Africa focused. In short, I have become my father and mother who went to Nigeria in the 60’s to build it. The pan-African Brooklynite in me sings loudly.


Change is about risk and fortune, it is about doing the work and doing it well. To achieve it, you have to be beyond mediocre and set an exceptional trail. It involves assessment, renewal and more reinvention but it is built on a solid foundation. Change is about recognizing that you have to be ahead of your self and have the right timing, be in the right mindset and space. My real lesson from change is about being open and being prepare to share how to re-invent yourself.


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