The best-selling author and Princeton history professor decided to go back to school in her 60s to fulfill a lifelong dream to become an artist. This is her story.
What does it take to reinvent yourself? How late is too late to begin a new life? Nell Irvin Painter had the kind of success most academics can only dream about. An esteemed professor of American history focusing on issues of race and identity, she held a named chair at Princeton; her books were reviewed widely and well. In 2010, when she was 64, Painter’s book, The History of White People was a New York Times best-seller. Unlike most of her academic peers, Painter employed scores of illustration to tell the story of racism and race science, a history in which power was often expressed or explained through aesthetics. The book revealed its author’s sharp eye and sharper wit.
The same year that book came out, Painter began a new endeavor: enrolling in an undergraduate program in fine arts at Rutgers. As an African-American woman in her 60s, she stood out among her classmates (and that’s not to mention her Ph.D.). Following her BFA from Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, she went on to get an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has shown her art in various galleries and museums, including the Brooklyn Historical Society and Smith College Museum of Art. In the new memoir, Old In Art School, Painter writes about the experience of going back to undergraduate study after scaling the heights of academia, and relates the experience of confronting unfamiliar demands and expectations in a completely new field. The book is probing and smart, often irreverent, surprisingly confessional, always lively. We talked on the phone about art, ambition, talent, race, feminism, and starting over.
I noticed that in your memoir, you identify yourself as Nell Painter, not Nell Irvin Painter, which was the name you used as a historian. Why?
Well, Nell Irvin Painter sounds kind of starchy for an artist.
It’s fascinating that your name is Painter, and the act of painting is one of the main struggles in the book.
People say, “Oh, you finally came into your destiny!” But the thing is, I got that name from my first husband.
Why did you decide to go back to school in the midst of a really prestigious career as a historian? And especially to go to art school?
Well, I suppose the easy answer is ignorance. And the other is being fortunate. I’m a very lucky person, and I’m a very grateful person. I have been able to pursue two loves of my life in the sense of vocation—I mean, I have a husband who’s the love of my life. I loved history, I still love history! But I also love the visual, and I’ve always had one eye open on the visual. Most of my life that’s been as a knitter and as someone who appreciates color and texture. I was fortunate enough to be able to do that, in terms of the physical stamina, the enjoyment, the family support—my husband supported me—and materially. Because art school costs an arm and a leg!
One thing you write about in the book is the gatekeeping aspect of art school. The cost is one thing that keeps people out—and probably disproportionately women of color.
Yes, yes. There’s the question of cost, there’s the question of, can you relocate—that is, does your family need you? And then there’s the mindset of the MFA. When I talk to people, when I was going through this experience, and as I was writing, about being told I would never be an artist, I talked to people who had done MFAs in writing, in poetry, in playwriting, in fiction writing, as well as visual arts, and they all recognized that phenomenon. So many people have either been told they’ll never be an artist or have known somebody who was told they’d never be an artist. It’s not just Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), it’s not just visual art, it’s art that has this problem of the talent mystique, the great man mystique, the genius mystique. That works against women especially, but people of color, women of color, Black women.
If there’s anything my book hopes to do, it’s in the very end when I say: “You can’t look at yourself through other people’s eyes.” In this society, if you look at this yourself through other people’s eyes and you’re a woman, you’re a Black person, you’re a person of color, you’re a woman of color, what you will get back is a resounding no. You can’t take that. You can’t function productively seeing yourself through other people’s eyes.
The story you tell in your book is inspirational, but at the same time, you talk a lot about failures and disappointments, and people saying these horrible things to you. For generations, Black women didn’t have much opportunity to tell their stories in print, and often once they did, they’d hold back for fear of airing dirty laundry or not representing some ideal. You write really movingly of your own mother, Dona Irvin, and how she wrote really boldly about age and race and beauty. How much of a model was she for you?
Anybody who asks me what the first steps were, well, the first step was my mother. My mother, who was born in 1917, came from an educated family. Her father was a college professor who married one of his students. So he was a leading colored man. And so she grew up the youngest child in this family, in which she could not stray into black vernacular culture. She was also very shy, and dark-skinned, in a rainbow family. Her mother could pass for white, her father was dark-skinned, and her siblings were all these different colors. And she was the youngest and the darkest. She was a very beautiful child and woman, but that beauty could not be seen, with her skin color, until the 1960s, until “Black is beautiful.”
In her second book, she does two things that really inspire me. One is her title: I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old. She uses the word “old.” And she also owns up to looking good. And then her picture on the cover: her beautiful face, her dark skin. The second thing was that she speaks as an individual, and I think that is still hard to do in our country, which wants Black voices to speak for Black people as a whole, or Black women as a whole. And I know that took courage for her to speak as an individual and a person whose voice and whose experience is worth your reading.
That burden of representing, that feeling that you have to represent your group—I think a lot of women, from all kinds of backgrounds, feel a different kind of burden of subsuming our own ambitions and desires for family and other people. How do you shake that off? What would you tell women, especially women in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond?
Wait, wait, wait! Let me say two things here. One is, I should put an asterisk by “old” in my title. Because people in art start feeling like you’re old if you’re over 30. But what I’ve also noticed is that about the time people—or maybe mostly women—get to around 40 you start feeling old, and sort of like, Wait a minute, is this all there is? Do I like this? Is this me? Is this what I want to be doing?
For people at 40 who are feeling old, I would say as I said many years ago to the Association of Black Women Historians, that mammy comes with a sunset clause. And here I was speaking to Black women historians: You can embrace that responsibility to your Black women colleagues, to your Black women students. It takes a tremendous amount of energy. And you can run yourself into a tiny little nub, doing the things that you think you should do as a responsible woman. You can do this for like 20 years, 30 years, that doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. Set your goal about what you’re going to do for other people, and then reach it, and then do for yourself. I think that every citizen owes citizen duty, and I think as fortunate women or fortunate Black women or fortunate Black people we owe an additional citizenship duty. But it’s not infinite.
You write a lot in this book about the value of hard work. That it’s not just the talent part of the art, but the hard work of getting up early, taking a train, being there when the classroom opens. I wondered if you found the generational stereotype about people the age of your classmates to be true— did they work less hard? What did you learn about the role of hard work even in a field like art?
I’m a big believer in putting in the time and doing the work. I say in my book that talent is the inclination, the pleasure that you get from some vocation, enough pleasure to spend all the time you need to get really good at it. A lot of people have talent. Way more people have talent than amount to anything, because talent by itself won’t get you very far, unless you’re a really well-connected white man who’s very cute. But the rest of us have to do the rest of it, which is all that hard work. My printmaking teacher called me “dogged.” And yeah, you could say I was. But that’s just a bad word for resilience.
You describe this teacher telling you you’ll never be “an artist.” Do you now consider yourself an artist?
So, if an artist is a person who makes art, most definitely. And I’m a professional artist, because I get paid for my work. But An Artist, with two capital As? No. It’s too late for me. Because to be the kind of artist—An Artist artist—I would have to have 30 years to work on it and 100 percent of my time to give to it. And what I was going to call my former life, but I now see is my other life, as a historian and a writer of books, that is still with me. It still takes up my time. And I don’t mind, because I like that.
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