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Memoir paints a vivid picture

‘Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over’ by Nell Painter

By any measure, Nell Painter was successful. She had a Princeton professorship in her chosen field, history; several acclaimed books; and she was voted into the leadership role in a highly respected organization of historians.

As she stepped into retirement, still very active in her field, she decided to pursue finally her long-held passion for art. In her mid-60s, at the top of her academic career, she decided to begin again: She enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Rutgers, then a Master of Fine Arts program at the acclaimed Rhode Island School of Design. This engaging book traces that experience, which turned out to be informative in all kinds of unexpected, sometimes unpleasant, ways.

Her art school journey turned out to be, more than anything else, a journey of identity. She was “old” among the majority twentysomethings, black among the majority white students and faculty, interested in infusing history into her art when the contemporary mode was mulishly focused on pop culture, an expert in one field but an amateur in another, respected in one field and treated disrespectfully in another. She talks about harrowing critique sessions in her studio with her teachers and fellow students at RISD, but then being invited to dine at the home of the president of Brown University, an old friend, and chatting with other friends who are among the glittering literati.

Another identity she had to confront as she was beginning again was that of daughter to aging and fragile parents who lived across the country. This further complicated her art school experience in terms of both time necessarily spent away, and emotional energy invested in taking care.

It also happened that as she was in art school, she published what turned out to be the most noted book of her career. In one section she talks about being largely invisible to her art school faculty and colleagues, while also appearing on the “Colbert Report” to discuss her book.

That this head-spinning journey left her a bit embittered is no shock. And she takes no prisoners as she describes the claustrophobic world of art and graduate art programs, naming names of those who seemed determined to crush any developing sense of trust in her own work. But she is nothing if not spirited and dogged in her pursuit of knowledge, and ultimately her pursuit of her own artistic vision.

Painter is, at heart, an academic and could not resist some teaching moments. I learned a lot about making art, racism in art, the way history and art can interact, and about artists historic and contemporary whose work I researched as she mentioned them. Not all readers may enjoy these sometimes lengthy and detailed tangents from the personal story, but I felt enriched by them. She also provides thumbnails of some of her own work, that show the techniques and subject matter she was experimenting with along the way.

This is an engaging, layered and thought-provoking memoir from this part-time Adirondacks resident.