Nell Painter’s Old in Art School, A Memoir of Starting Over is a paean to lost dreams. At 64, Painter, a respected historian and author of the New York Times bestselling The History of White People, retired from teaching at Princeton to pursue an art degree. A scholar at heart, she was not content to merely paint, she scoffed at the notion of being a hobbyist; she wanted to learn what it meant to become An Artist with a capital A. She quickly learned how much she didn’t know.
As an undergrad once again, this time at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, she learned not only how to draw and paint, she learned to see art with new eyes. “My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning,” but her younger classmates and teachers taught her to value the “DIY aesthetic,” the drips and smudges that she considered “mistakes needing to be cleaned up.”
Pushing herself, always wanting more – a greater understanding of art and artists and her own aesthetic – Painter continues her education, ultimately receiving an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Painter pushed past the ageism, sexism, and racism she encountered, as well as paralyzing self-doubt, noting that graduate school seemed to be an experience in humiliation. She is accused of slacking, told she can’t draw or paint, that she might paint, but she’d never truly be an Artist. “What is art?” she asks. Art is what’s in galleries. Artist artists sell their work, she says. Serious artists need an MFA, not just a BFA. The work of Artist artists is collected – by rich people, really rich people who serve on boards of museums and donate art from their personal collections to museums. There, now you know what makes an Artist artist, she quips. It was hard work made more challenging as she sat by her dying parents’ bedsides – something her younger peers cannot yet fathom. Yet, Painter also knows that she has the opportunity and means to pursue her dream – a privilege few can afford.
Did she make it? “I’m an artist who lives and works in Newark, New Jersey,” she writes, “An artist whose other – not, as I once said, former – lives as a historian and as a daughter are still crucial parts of me. I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist, not a young anybody with a young anybody’s future before me. . . . “Serious artist? Yes.” Painter makes and shows her work regularly and gets paid for it. But an Artist artist? “Probably not, she says, “Probably never, because I still do other things. Is she sad about that? A little, she says, but not enough to live her life any other way.
Painter is a dreamer and a realist. Anyone who has ever had a dream deferred, anyone who appreciates art or wants to learn more about art, will enjoy Painter’s memoir, Old in Art School.