by Lisa Peet
Blooming later in life can be a simple matter of pacing—keep at your craft for years, develop a practice and hone your skills, until some benchmark is reached that signifies a goal. Or it can involve reinvention, starting out as one thing and becoming another. Nell Irvin Painter has done both—and, as her recent book Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint) tells it, the two may not at first seem entirely compatible.
At 64, Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton, heard the calling to become an artist—not a hobbyist, not a weekend landscape painter, but, as she puts it, An Artist artist. She had enjoyed drawing and painting as a teenager and young adult, and had studied art at Berkeley in the 1960s. While someone with her CV, dense with scholarly achievements—presidencies of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association, fellowships and honorary degrees dating back to the early ‘70s, eight well-received books, and, at the time, a ninth in progress—could conceivably be satisfied with a more laid-back approach to art-making, Painter is clearly not one to do anything halfway.
Higher education has been good to Painter: an academic degree has signified not only a body of knowledge absorbed but a recognizable stamp of approval in the world. Although well aware of the limitations that straight-up academic study might impose on an artist’s practice—“I loved all the steps entailed in scholarship, but I reached for more, to take other steps, additional steps, call them side steps, for freedom from evidence-based knowledge,” she writes—ultimately, serious study was what she wanted.
Still, after a couple of introductory painting classes at Princeton and a summer drawing and painting marathon at the New York Studio School in Manhattan, Painter left her position at Princeton—at early retirement age, with a body of achievements and publications under her belt, less a leap of faith than a next step—and enrolled full-time in art school, first at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA, and then the MFA program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Immediately, as her memoir’s title would suggest, Painter ran up against some seriously intersectional identity politics:
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 to my age. This was something new.
At Mason Gross, her fellow students stared and then asked outright, How old are you? Reactions ranged from “I’ve gotta tell my mom about this!” to “I hope I look that good when I’m that old” (the latter just happens to be the title of the memoir published by Painter’s mother, Dona Irvin, at 65).
Her age may have been anomalous among a crowd of undergrads, but Rutgers’s bustling multicultural heterogeneity was easy enough to wade into, and Painter began learning about materials and technique with a vengeance. Art had come easy to her when she was younger; it was a matter of talent, she had thought at Berkeley. But when she had run up against the need to go beyond the fun parts, she’d balked. “My art major ended with a C in sculpture, a C I earned by not doing any work,” she writes.
This time around at Mason Gross, Painter applied herself with the focus of a lifelong scholar. She paid close attention to her instructors, embraced new processes, re-examined artists from Ben Shahn to Alice Neel to Kara Walker, and worked prolifically, at the same time she was finishing up her most recent scholarly book, The History of White People (W.W. Norton)—which eventually went on to become a New York Times best seller—and attending to her increasingly frail parents on the west coast. Her mother died during her final semester.
Thoroughly exhausted, cranky, and impatient, Painter graduated Mason Gross with a sense of general irritation and an impatience to get on to the next phase of her art career: graduate school. When friends and instructors suggested that she didn’t need an MFA to continue her development, Painter’s reaction was to bristle: “Uh-oh. My ambition as a problem…. Whatever it is I want, I can’t have it, because I don’t need it.” Only admissions departments had the power to tell her No, she reasoned, then applied to four programs.
She was accepted at RISD and settled into an apartment in Providence, ready to go. In a chapter ominously titled “A Bad Decision,” Painter writes,
I would not be held back by undergraduate farting around. I surely was headed to art paradise. I really did think and feel that. I really did.
RISD was, in many ways, an art paradise. It was also overwhelmingly white, young, and privileged—and, as she realized over the course of her first year, deeply oriented toward a conceptual zeitgeist that didn’t align with hers. It wasn’t as defined as the anti-formalist disdain for representative art and “illustration” she had encountered—and moved beyond—at Mason Gross, Rather, even more than her chronological age, what set Painter out of step with her graduate school cohort was its overriding repudiation of rigor, research, and art’s historical context, all of which were as ingrained in her creative process as any other aspect of her identity. She writes:
I wasn’t feeling appreciated for my real strengths—intellectual sophistication and visual ambition. To the contrary, my strengths felt like impediments…. The very worst thing you could call someone’s art [at RISD] was ‘academic,’ meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
Instructors rushed through her work during crits, and visiting artists passed her by during studio visits. Like cliquish high school kids, Painter’s fellow students excluded her to an almost boorish degree, waiting to take their class photo until she ducked out to her studio for a moment. She encountered a dismaying level of racism as well, from the architecture student who refused to read an essay by bell hooks, “An Aesthetics of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” as “he couldn’t relate to it, because the author was black,” to being stopped in the printmaking studio one evening by a student monitor and asked “Are you taking a class?”
Why else would I be up here on the third floor of Benson Hall in the night?…. In a second I was remanded to my country, where race counts all the time.
Rather than the hoped-for access to the art world’s gatekeepers, Painter was getting an up-close look at the gate itself. As one instructor told her:
You may have a gallery.
You may sell your work.
You may have collectors.
But you will never be an artist.
Painter responded, “Henry, that’s bullshit.” But the damage was done.
By the time she wound up her first year of graduate school, she was in a deep funk of self-doubt. The other artists in her program, she felt, weren’t questioning whether their work was good or valid—or if they were, they were careful not to let on. “Intellectually I knew I was not the only one in the world harboring doubts,” she writes. But “at the time I felt alone in my miserable alienation.” She swung back and forth, from justification—was it only the trappings, the lack of a Soho gallery or interest from prominent art world collectors, that stood in her way? Or was she really not good enough? Was she too timid, following her undergraduate art class rules when she should have been passionately throwing paint at canvas and not caring what anyone thought?
When she first decided to study art, Painter told me in a phone conversation, her friends urged her to keep the journal that eventually became the source material for Old in Art School. Along the way, as her feelings about school grew more conflicted, that journal became more confessional than she had envisioned. “I didn’t know that I could reveal the depth of how pathetic I’d become,” she says. “I didn’t know that I would write a chapter on my sense of myself as an artistic failure because I couldn’t draw my mother dying.”
But it is this frankness about her unmet expectations, her crisis of confidence, and how those old habits of applied hard work eventually propelled her past both of those roadblocks, that makes Old in Art School more than a quirky memoir with an uplifting arc. She says:
What I worked through over the course of the book and over the years was accepting myself as somebody who’s not like other people and can’t be understood in that way—somebody who is still a historian, and who is not a young anything. I will never be an art star. When I started I thought Oh, I want to be the [same] kind of artist [as] I’ve been a historian. And I can’t do that… That was really hard to get to. I’m just a crummy everyday little old artist. There are people who like my work. I like my work. That’s what counts.
Fortunately, Painter was not making art in a vacuum. One of the great values of age is a lifetime of friends, and many of hers happened to be accomplished artists who were generous with their time and their own critiques of her work—and, most important, their encouragement.
A self-portrait series she had done at the end of the semester had gotten her thinking about the intersection of art and identity—race, gender, age—in a way that interested her, and inspired her beyond the need to simply work harder. “[A]rt and race reside in something as slippery as your temperament and the way you perform your identity of black person or artist,” she wrote; “you can’t change them, by this common line of thought, for they cannot be taught or learned.”
Ensconced in the Adirondacks for the summer, Painter retreated to her studio, a former rabbit hutch. There she communed with peers and made art without worrying about what one instructor termed right nowness: art books inspired by Maira Kalman, collages incorporating torn pieces of the manuscript of The History of White People, paintings of projections of digitally altered photos of her paintings. She flew to Oakland to see her ailing father, read to him from Marable Manning’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, and made small abstract collages. Samples of her work from that time reproduced in the book are stunning in their sudden swooping freedom and beauty. “By the end of the Adirondack summer, I had found myself again, my real, pre-graduate-school me, I mean,” Painter wrote.
I had new confidence in my art and the feeling I had made a decent start in finding my way to make my art. Alternate crits with people liking what I liked and doubting what I doubted had lessened my distrust of my own eyes. I had gained a footing, found a perch, discovered a place where I could stand or hang on to make my work.
What art school could offer her, Painter realized, was exactly what academia promised in the first place: history, technique, a body of knowledge, a useful vocabulary. Her studious process was her own, and integral to her practice.
She returned to RISD, missing the traditional kick-off student barbecue to attend the opening of her archive at the Duke University Library’s John Hope Franklin Center. Onstage at Duke, she was interviewed by art historian Richard Powell, who talked about one of her paintings that had received a lukewarm reception at RISD. “He recognized the art historical allusions—Apollo Belvedere, Caspar David Friedrich, and the Harriet Tubman figure walking through Harlem on the lower right,” she wrote. “Here was the crit from heaven.”
Painter moved through her final year with a new portfolio of work and the self-confidence to accompany it. Her instructors were impressed, asking her to explain her sudden progress. Education and hard work, she told them.
If artists were born, not made, as in Henry’s ontological-not-epistemological concept of An Artist, how could education make so much of a difference? How could last year’s bad painter turn into this year’s good—okay—promising, painter?… I rejected ontological reasoning. Education and hard work made all the difference in the world.
“There are more good artists in the world than there is room for good artists to be recognized,” Painter says. “I’m a good artist, but I’m in that massive category of people who are not on the cover of ArtForum.” That’s fine, she says, “But it took a while to get there, and to put together the history part as an ongoing part of who I am as a person who is an artist.”
Which is why it’s important, she cautions, not to let others define us; not groundbreaking advice, perhaps, but critical for anyone at risk of being slotted and squashed into one identity or another when they are working to become something new—or just working.
If you…get to identities that are not socially prized, like being a woman, or being black, or being old—you know, if you go through life seeing yourself as an old black woman, which from time to time I have done, it’s devastating. Because our society just tells you, GO AWAY. We do not want to see you.
Painter’s journey in Old in Art School is enabled by all of those identities: the black woman and the old woman as well as the author and the academic and the artist, the slow steady bloomer and the dramatically remade self.
She adds, “One big difference between having an artist look at your artwork and having a non-artist look at your artwork is the non-artist will look at a piece of art and usually say, ‘Oh, what does this mean?’ ‘Oh, I see an eye here.’ ‘This is an allegory for death’—looking for discursive meaning. Whereas an artist will look at something and then ask you, ‘How did you do that?’ And the second part is what I wanted to give in my book: How I did that.”
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
All artwork ©Nell Irvin Painter
Homepage photo credit: John Emerson
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