Rose Northey

While Rose’s BE(Hons) Mechanical Engineering led her through a conventional engineering path, her passion and skills translated to a very different career.

Qualification: BE(Hons) in Mechanical Engineering
Role: Poet and illustrator

The early sparks

“Being told you're either right or left-brained as a child probably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a part of the identity you grow into, almost like a star sign. I mean, people definitely use both sides of their brain for normal everyday tasks like getting up to take a shower... so being either one or the other is a strange concept to me. I guess I got lucky because my mom is an artist and my dad is mechanically minded, so I had both influences.

“I grew up in Auckland’s North Shore. I performed in local amateur theatres throughout school and university. I never actually did the Engineering Revue because I was always too busy doing my own thing!

I was pretty academically focused at school. I wanted to do everything and was determined to do well at all of it. I took art, drama and english but also physics and calculus. I was drawn to the challenge of the latter two. With a bit of logic and endless amounts of patience, you can push your mind to understand something which originally looked like utter gibberish; it’s hugely satisfying.

“I didn't fully understand why at the time, but looking back, I was very sure about Engineering. I applied only to the University of Auckland, only to Engineering, and picked Mechanical Engineering straight off the bat. I think my younger self just had zero chill! I was impulsive and intense when making important life decisions, but it did also help that I had a very good maths and physics teacher at school.

“Leonardo da Vinci was a strong inspiration for me. I also knew that Mechanical Engineering was one of the largest engineering specialisations, with opportunities to work in a wide range of industries — everything from acoustics design to product development to process improvement. I knew I would have a lot of options within my chosen option.”

A leap of faith

“I was doing Product Development Engineering at Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. My job was great, my team was just the best. In my first three years I had been pretty content and had honestly believed that I’d work in the same place for most, if not all, of my career. Then a friend of mine there told me about spoken word poetry. I went along with her to see an event and just fell in love with it. I just saw so much potential for integrating theatre and writing and this incredible chance to hear raw stories written by people from all walks of life.

I feel like performance poetry is really special. A lot of art requires people to have specialised resources, oodles of time, and access to good spaces. It can ultimately privilege people who have spare income to throw around. But you don't need a degree or anything to do spoken word poetry. You can write a poem on your phone while sitting on a bus which is taking you to a community poetry event. Your story is your most valuable asset so differences are always welcomed.”

“The Council funds a number of events in Auckland. Some hire a poet to give a featured performance every week. I was given a small payment for being a featured poet a couple of times. Although I had done theater most of my life, I had only ever been paid in applause. Being paid for your labour makes a big difference to the pride you associate with it. And so I slowly began to take poetry more seriously.

“In any job, there are phases of higher and lower excitement. I was completing a relatively monotonous task at work when I had my quarter life crisis. I realised that this is the right time in life to take risks, make changes, and figure out what I want. I had found a profession which I liked, but by staying, I could end up denying myself love. When I talk about my love for spoken word poetry, people tell me about all kinds of dreams they had when they were younger, however the story usually ends with ‘and then I had kids and a mortgage and things got hard, but I still do it for fun now and then’. ‘What if’ is a heavy, unanswered question for so many people.

I wanted to be kind of my future self telling the same story. I decided to kill the ‘what if’ and see where it will take me. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in high school or at the end of your career. We’re all searching for things we’re good at but also for ways to challenge ourselves. If you can continuously learn and still have regular successes, you have hit the work satisfaction jackpot. In engineering I was continuously learning and I was paid well for it, but because product development has such a long timeline, the reward cycle is also slow. As an artist I don’t have the best financial security but I am constantly upskilling myself and every two days I get to prance around the living room with some new art, singing ‘look what I made! Do you like it?’ It's a short and happy feedback loop.

“The arts didn’t feel as challenging as physics and maths when I was in school. You make a thing, you present it to a teacher who is contractually obliged to look at it and grade it. But even if we put technical ability aside completely, making a living as an artist is an intriguing challenge and so is connecting with people who aren’t paid to engage with your work. Maybe I found the arts easier than physics and maths in school, but a creative career is definitely more challenging than engineering to me now!

“There is a chance that I will get sick of my creative career and go back to engineering. I was never a very ambitious engineer so it doesn’t bother me that my friends are climbing the professional ladder while I’m sitting here writing about chips. It’s actually lovely not to know that if all fails, I can return to an industry which is chill, intellectually satisfying, and won't exploit my labour. I know engineers who have ended up in other professions such as banking or marketing anyway; I just happened to be self-poached!”

On external expectations

Rose performing at TedX Auckland in 2019

“I felt a bit of pressure to succeed when I was going through university. You’re constantly told that being a woman in engineering is unusual, especially in Mechanical Engineering which became very painfully obvious when we took a women only picture in the fourth year of my degree. In the photo, there were maybe six women from Mechanical Engineering, and maybe four from Mechatronics. I just thought ‘wow, this explains why most of my friends at uni are men!’

So I think you take on both a sense of pride and obligation — and I only get a single layer of this being an able-bodied white woman — you feel as though you’re representing your minority in a sense, which can be super stressful but also empowering. Sometimes you have little girls coming up to you saying, ‘I wanna be an engineer like you!’ and sometimes people ask you to speak at events. These expectations become a strong part of your identity.

“Leaving engineering to become an artist was an emotional process because I felt as though I was betraying womankind. But at the same time, the fact that we have options should be celebrated. My life is not a charity to be lived only for other people so I put all that baggage aside to give it a go. I still find that I'm influenced by the ‘Engineer’ title in my arts career. People with an arts background are stoked that I left engineering, people with a STEM background are impressed that I came from engineering. Some probably take my career change more seriously as a result. I’m going to insult both sides at once and say that I find both opinions a bit elitist. I’m just trying to live my best life and if people enjoy my art, that’s wonderful, but it shouldn’t just be because I’m an engineer.”

The artist and the engineer

One of Rose's works, 'Kororā Island', a 1.1m long digital painting commissioned by a conservationist who worked on Tiritiri Matangi Island. His favourite time of the day was twilight when the Kororā were seen marching back to their nests and the Kuaka can be heard crash landing into the native scrub.

“I probably think about process improvement more than the average person. It’s definitely a factor when I make art. One of the reasons I do digital illustration is because It enables me to streamline my process with ease. I realised that I get the most satisfaction with a large throughput as opposed to spending months on only a few pieces.

I crave connection with people and a breadth of creativity in my work. I take my time when I’m chatting to clients about their needs and I’m patient when it comes to getting the draft just right. When I know what I’m doing conceptually, that’s when I begin to take all my tricks.    

“I have a growing library of photos and painted textures which I import into my works to add stylistic flair and easy detail. I optimise my digital brushes so that they use line smoothing or are shaped to do some of the work for me. I am constantly upskilling my use of digital tools through YouTube university so that I know many of the interface shortcuts. I worship the ‘undo’ button. It saves so much time which does not directly add to the value of the art I produce. My illustration tools initially seemed expensive but engineering taught me the importance of using the right tool for the job.

“You also learn so many soft skills in engineering, such as how to work with clients in order to meet a brief. Whenever I wrote a complicated document or procedure in engineering, it would be checked by so many people, each with a different agenda. More times than not, the document would return to me covered in red pen.

You kind of leave your pride behind little by little. Your priorities become less about you, and more about what you are making. Engineering is incredibly teamwork-heavy so you either upskill your emotional intelligence or your life becomes unnecessarily hard. I bring those skills into everything I do, whether when I’m creating a poem or an artwork for a client.

“Engineering taught me to be confident in my ability to learn new things. Even if I haven’t done something before, I know that I am patient and persistent and not above reaching out to others for help. Most people really enjoy giving advice on their areas of expertise, I know I do. When I was in Engineering I knew how important it was to maintain relationships with people across the company and lend help when needed. As a creative I do the same, whenever I find a good poet or artist who lives near to me I'm like, ‘come, be my friend’. Community doesn’t stop being important when you start being self employed.”