Newport: Embracing deep Cornell connections

Raised a short drive from Mount Vernon in Cedar Rapids, Shelby Newport ’06, the daughter of well-known sculptor Tom Newport ’77, grew up going to senior art exhibits on campus, surrounded by her father’s classmates and professors.

Shelby Newport '06
Shelby Newport ’06

What really drew her in, though, was Cornell’s block plan, which she saw as an opportunity to study art and theatre in a “really concentrated way.”

In high school Newport was involved in theatre and planned to study it at college. When she arrived on campus it was with the intent of parlaying her passion for acting into a career in drama therapy.

It was that first block of her freshman year that set Newport on a new path as a costume designer. Until then she didn’t know “backstage design could be a field that one could go into.”

More than a decade later, Newport is associate professor, resident costume designer, and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan-Flint. Now, as a professor tasked with designing classes around the traditional semester structure, Newport is even more appreciative of the way she was able to study her art at Cornell.

“A day in a Cornell class is sort of like a week, which would be two class periods on a semester plan. I didn’t really believe that until I actually laid out a syllabus myself,” she says. “It has really given me a deeper appreciation for the Cornell schedule. It allows you studio time to actually do that work that you just learned how to do, time to ruminate and think, and to talk to other classmates in a really intense way.”

Those 18-day blocks also offered opportunities to forge relationships that Newport has maintained post-graduation. Her husband, the artist and designer Mark Baker ’06, is one. She has also stayed in touch with most of her fellow theatre graduates as well as Department Chair Scott Olinger.

Maintaining those connections afforded Newport an opportunity to return to campus to costume Cornell’s 2018 spring mainstage production of “August: Osage County.”

Newport, who has an M.F.A. from Purdue University, has worked in TV as well as theatre in the U.S. and England (see It is the contemporary plays such as “August: Osage County,” though, that afford Newport the most opportunity to analyze the script and “to use what the playwright gives you to dig into the choices the people might make, what stores would they shop at, and what clothes would they buy.”

At first, being back on campus as a professor instead of a student, “I had a little bit of the college student butterflies,” Newport says. Those were quickly settled, though, by Olinger, her professor turned colleague.

“Embrace the deep connections that Cornell affords you. The relationships that I built there with my mentors have launched and served me in my professional life,” she says. “There’s something really special about the small private campus of Cornell and Mount Vernon, and I felt that coming back.”

— Carly Weber