Nell Painter enjoyed a celebrated career as professor of American history at Princeton University. But after decades of earning fellowships and honors and publishing nine scholarly books, her last name came calling. Painter embarked on a new chapter of life: to become an artist.
Her Ph.D. from Harvard wouldn’t be enough to get her into a good M.F.A. program, so at the age of 64, Painter — whose books included the New York Times bestseller “The History of White People” — enrolled as an undergraduate at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.
And while others her age may have been satisfied with painting classes through the local community college or continuing education program — or even at the senior center — Painter applied the earnestness that had driven her through her scholarly career from Mason Gross to completing an M.F.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design.
No little old lady painting flowers in vases is she.
“Old in Art School,” published by Counterpoint Press, is the memoir that chronicles Painter’s journey, something Painter, now 75, will discuss at Labyrinth Books in Princeton on Thursday, June 21, at 6 p.m.
With a good dose of humor, the book describes how, after a lifetime of overcoming unfair treatment as a black woman, Painter must battle the discrimination of being old, black, and female — with anecdotes about waiting at the NJ Transit station in New Brunswick and being approached by an 18-year-old art student in Uggs and a little dress who asks, “Just how old are you?”
Another classmate, a skinny white skateboarder dude who completes “huge, extraordinary imaginative pieces by staying up the night before the piece was due,” gets her to thinking it’s better to die young, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Arshile Gorky. “Too late for me.”
“I was used to juggling my self-perception and other people’s views of me as a black person and as a woman, from within and without. But now what I took as me seemed almost inconsequential as my essence shriveled into my age,” says Painter.
And then there’s the professor who is determined to teach her that she will never be an artist. “You may show your work. You may have a gallery. You may sell your work. You may have collectors,” he tells her, but adds she lacks the “essential component, the ineffable inner quality necessary to truly be ‘an artist.’”
Painter’s account serves as a warning that going to art school at any age may very well kill the artist in you.
But Painter struggles to keep the creative juices flowing. “That contented concentration is what I love about making art,” she writes. “I don’t call it fun. My non-artists friends would invariably ask… was I having fun? True, art can feel like play, can actually be play. But I’d say fun is too frivolous (a) word for the contentment, the concentration, the peace of mind I experience when I draw or paint…”
“Old in Art School” appeals not just to those who dream about becoming late-in-life artists, but anyone who grapples with how to direct their energies post-retirement. In this sense, being an “artist” is more about designing your life, defying the kind of giving up that retiring sometimes implies. Being retired doesn’t mean being retiring, but rather a turning point, a chance to pursue a new direction, a path not yet explored.
The book is also about perseverance. For the ever-determined Painter, it’s not enough to go to art school; she spends weekends in intensive classes at the New York Academy of Art. And if that’s not enough, she is an avid knitter.
There are interesting anecdotes about those who inspire her: Faith Ringgold, Alice Neel, Romare Bearden, Betty Saar, Maira Kalman, Kiki Smith, and Sonia Delauney, among others.
When one of her professors speaks of her own Yale assignment to complete 100 drawings, Painter’s fellow students groan as she presses on — and mind you, this self-imposed drawing challenge was while she was writing “The History of White People,” chairing various scholarly organizations, and flying back and forth to the West Coast to care for elderly parents. She incorporates her feelings about her dying parents in her work, only to have one teacher call it “dreary.”
Even when she makes the final visit to see her mother, Painter brings along chapters of her book to edit, and while she had aspirations to draw her mother dying, in the end she cannot, fearing the art-making would separate her from the experience.
Born in Houston, Texas, Painter grew up in Oakland, California, where her mother worked in the public schools and her father, trained as a chemist, worked for the University of California at Berkeley chemistry department. She describes him as a “gregarious bohemian” who taught her to draw.
Painter carried a sketchbook and drew all the time, she recounts.
At the University of California, Berkeley, she earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1964. While at Berkeley she drew covers for the campus humor magazine. She studied French medieval history at the University of Bordeaux, France, and at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies, before earning a master’s in African history at the UCLA in 1967. From there she went on to Harvard for a Ph.D. in American history (1974) — her dissertation was published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Prior to coming to Princeton Painter was on the faculties of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Hunter College. She lives in Newark with her husband, Glenn Shafer, dean of the Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick — according to his website he is “best known for his work in the 1970s and 1980s on the Dempster-Shafer theory, an alternative theory of probability that has been applied widely in engineering and artificial intelligence.”
Painter had a role model for a late-in-life reboot. After retiring from the Oakland Public Schools, her mother, Dona, wrote “The Unsung Heart of Black America: A Middle-Class Church at Midcentury,” published by the University of Missouri Press in 1993. Dona’s second book, “I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old,” about her coming to terms with aging, was published by iUniverse in early 2002. Nell shared a close relationship with both parents, and was there for them in their dying years — during her art school education.
Indeed art school does seem to be killing the artist in her, when fellow students don’t share her interest in the “Black Aesthetic,” black artists, and her defense of the role of women in art. “The lack of concern for what I was groping toward, for what I was trying to do, deflated me,” she writes. When other students get disheartened they want to go home, but Painter can’t go home. Her saintly husband holds down the fort in Newark, but RISD is home for now because it’s what she has carved out for herself.
She learns the role of beauty, talent, narrative, meaning, and appropriation in contemporary art.
Painter shines a light on some of the ways old people, with partners and professions, don’t fit in, such as at residential art programs like Skowhegan, rife with “exuberant young people creating art intensively, expressively in gigantic gestures and series of all-night wonders of solitary and cooperative imagination… tattooed art kids bounding around in shorts and flipflops… annoyed by misunderstood rules, propelled by hormonal surges, drinking and drugging and fucking in the bushes, throwing up in their studios.”
She finds herself surrounded by Korean students whose parents sent them to RISD based on its U.S. News & World Report ranking. While Painter set out to make art school the icing on the cake of her life, in the end she describes grad school as an exercise in humiliation. A self-described fuddy-duddy, her young classmates help her to loosen up.
Painter is self-conscious about “becoming” an artist, about how to dress as an artist and achieve the look of an artist. She even succumbs to straightening her hair, though keeps the color natural (gray). Even as Painter talks about embracing aging, it’s apparent that, for her, going to art school at this stage of life is a way of seeking the fountain of youth.
“After a life of historical truth and political engagement with American society, my artwork represents freedom,” says Painter. “Including the freedom to be totally self-centered.”
In 2017 Painter completed a residency with the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, where she collaborated with master printer Randy Hemminghaus on six editions.
Her artwork has been exhibited at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, Smith College Museum of Art, Brooklyn Historical Society, Gallery Aferro in Newark, New Jersey, and SUNY Genesco — these days she refers to herself as “the painter formerly known as the historian Nell Irvin Painter” — but perhaps her greatest work of art is this memoir, providing an inside look at the hurdles to becoming an artist at any age.
She knows she has truly arrived as an artist when she must confront the age-old problem so many artists face: what to do with all that inventory.
Nell Painter, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. Thursday, June 21, 6 p.m. Free. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com