Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over
Nell Painter made no mention of the fact that she was enrolled as a first-year graduate painting student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) during her guest television appearance on The Colbert Report in March 2010. She wasn’t there to talk about the new career she had started from scratch, at age sixty-four, as an artist. She was there to playfully arm wrestle Stephen Colbert and discuss her recent book, The History of White People (2010), a scholarly accomplishment being lauded in circles from Comedy Central to the front page of the New York Times Book Review. She had yet to find the words to explain what she had been doing since retiring as an esteemed Princeton history professor a few years earlier. Her new path was murky, with rules far less clear than the Ivy League tenure track she trod for decades.
But, with the recent publication of her memoir, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, Painter has found a way to describe her later-in-life transition from academia to the studio. The book includes ninety-three images of her artworks as a chronological portfolio of sorts, beginning with early oil on canvas still lifes up until her recent digital collages inspired by historic subjects. As she writes of that period around 2010, when she was appearing on late night talk shows to celebrate her previous book release, “I was a star and a dud, simultaneously.” While she was being feted at speaking engagements and book release revelries across the globe, she was also being “torn down” by her RISD teachers during studio visits and critiques. This was exacerbated by the fact that she was a comfort fashion-wearing old lady among a cohort of skinny jean-attired millennials, as she put it, “a misfit several times over,” along with the concerns of an older person: aging parents, the commitments of a previous profession, and the insecurities of starting new with seemingly limited time.
Painter nevertheless spent considerable time, energy, and money training as an artist with both a BFA and MFA in painting. And with that training, she has crafted a style that integrates her hand-drawn sketches into digital artworks. “I inched toward developing my own process,” Painter says of the mid-MFA summer when she overcame her 20th century tastes in favor of more contemporary means of artmaking. “In this endless toggling back and forth between my computer and my hand, I found my own manual + digital way to make art.” Painter scans her drawings, reworks them in Photoshop, and then projects them onto canvases to be repainted. She often incorporates text in her work, with subject matter that draws heavily on historic subjects—archival photographs of Brooklyn from the 1970s and ’80s, African American slavery, and geographic maps of the Black Sea.
Her memoir is both personal and global, describing the minutiae of her own experience (an entire chapter is devoted to her undergraduate commute to Rutgers) as well as her broader thoughts on “The Art World.” Despite her considerable efforts to make art, she does not hold back from criticizing her new arena and its insularity, which has largely left black women artists, such as herself, out of the art historical canon. “I could see that who counted had to do with race and gender and class and place,” Painter writes. “This art-historical-canon-making is a reflection of fashion, not some free-floating quality of intrinsic worth or artistic genius, all the while pretending that objective criteria exist.”
Coming from a world of peer-reviewed research, with its requirement that claims be supported with footnotes linked to the existing archive of scholarship, Painter rails against the art world’s lack of objective standards to evaluate art. In her search for relatable art historical predecessors, Painter turned to the works of Pat Steir, Robert Colescott, Faith Ringgold, and Howardena Pindell—all artists who spent years with little or no art world recognition. “I knew,” Painter continues, “that there existed entire bodies of work, entire worlds of interesting art that were not visible in the art history I studied.” As a black woman artist—an old one, at that—Painter describes climbing an uphill battle for artistic recognition that she may never surmount.
Even with these struggles, Painter finds peace in her artmaking pursuits, in creating more illustrative work not usually seen in New York’s galleries, individual to her, with her seasoned historical references and seven decades of life experience. “I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist, not a young anybody with a young anybody’s future before me,” she writes. “I know the value of doing my work, my work, and keeping at it. I do keep at it—in the pleasure of the process of making the art only I can make.” But in her memoir she leaves us with a detailed record of her personal art history, a map to understanding her idiosyncratic works and a written means of insuring that her art is not forgotten.