The subtitle of Nell Painter’s inspiring and inspired new book “Old in Art School” is “A Memoir of Starting Over.”
The memoir is indeed about self-renewal at the age of 64.
Painter leaves behind 30 years as a history professor – most recently as Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton – and as a scholar of acclaimed history books.
The book chronicles her breakout into a new world in the visual arts.
She writes about it from her perspective as a black, female and older art student and artist.
The memoir meshes many subjects. It focuses in part on her thoughts about the issues that come with studying in art school – the process of making art, the content of art, the colors she wants, the kinds of paper to draw and paint on, just as examples.
Then there are the challenging political-social dimensions of school life – her relations with the coterie of much younger fellow students, with her teachers, with others critiquing her work. She explores some of the neglected African-American – female and male – artists who have come before her.
Painter doesn’t limit her topical discussions to art and art history.
She also relates the tough emotional challenges she faces in parenting her aging parents. Painter flies cross-country to visit them on demand in the Bay Area. It means taking unplanned breaks from her studies at two East Coast institutions – first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and then at the Rhode Island School of Design – and at times from her husband in Newark, N.J.
In the midst of her rigorous studies, she completes the editing of her book “The History of White People.”
She perseveres in everything she does – her art-making melding art and history, her parenting, her polishing the manuscript, and her dealing with abiding insecurity.
Being a memoirist was a new experience for her.
“The first thing is I had to learn about the writing of that kind of book. I hadn’t written anything so personal before,” Painter said in a phone interview.
“This was about my life and my feelings, and some of my feelings I had a lot of trouble writing about. The first, and probably really the hardest, was whining about not being sufficiently appreciated (in art school) as a historian.
“I call this whining because I retired from a Princeton professorship, I had a Harvard Ph.D. I published a lot of books. So I’ve been a person who’s been so appreciated, and to whine about not being sufficiently appreciated is very unbecoming. But that was part of my feeling,” Painter added.
Another hard part she acknowledged was recognizing she had made a poor decision to go directly from undergraduate school to graduate school.
She made that decision during her mother’s decline and death because it gave her the feeling that her own time was short.
“I no longer feel that I have plenty of time,” Painter said. “If I had sat down and thought about it or if I had gone to the internet, Google would have told me not to make a major decision while my mother was dying.
“The third hard thing was writing about how angry I was with my father. He bad-mouthed me to his friends. He was depressed.”
Painter said friends of hers envied her for attending art school.
“There’s a kind of mystique about art, about living an attractive, creative, lovely life, whereas if you’re a scholar, it’s one day after another, dealing with your undergraduate students who don’t want to read or can’t write,” she said.