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Old in Art School: Nell Painter Paints a Refreshing Portrait of What Coming-of-Age Can Look Like

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Nell Painter shows off her work
Photo: John Emerson

At 76, Nell Painter dresses differently than she did just 10 years ago—but not in the ways one might expect.

A prominent historian and professor emeritus at Princeton, Painter dressed as a professor would. When she wore earrings, they were simple, classic diamond studs. She certainly wouldn’t wear cowboy boots, as she showed me one summer day, her face beaming as she rolled up her pants and extended her leg toward me. The pointed brown leather toe was glossy in the afternoon sun.

“Now, I mostly dress like an artist,” she says, her skin luminous against her striking gold hoops, red lipstick, and crisp, white linen shirt. She notes other changes, too. “I’m much less correct now than I used to be. My language is saltier. I’m less patient.”

Like her new clothes, this new identity suits her.

At the age of 64, after a life filled with accomplishments and acclaim, Painter decided to change direction. She dropped academia (and her maiden name) and enrolled in art school, getting a bachelor’s degree at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers before continuing onward to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for her MFA.

That all sounds neat and tidy, but as Painter reveals in her new memoir about the experience, Old in Art School, being an old black woman in art school was messy, bewildering, and at times, painful.

“Those of us who are old should be embracing ‘old’ as no longer a spoiled identity, in the way that we can embrace ‘black’ as no longer a spoiled identity.” — Nell Painter

“In art school if you’re over 30, you’re old,” she says, adding that in academia, certain privileges are afforded with age. But in art school, the combination of her age and gender not only made her an anomaly—it rendered her invisible.

“The world, our country, is racist and sexist so I was kind of used to that,” she said. But I hadn’t hadn’t run up against this disappearing of me as an old woman.”

While she was invisible as an artist—not fitting the “right now-ness” (that is, youth) preferred by the art world and shunned by her peers in her RISD art program, in other ways, she was hyper-visible. Her memoir recounts one incident—familiar to many black people in mostly-white settings—in which she went to a printmaking studio at night to complete an assignment when she was stopped by a white female monitor who wanted to know if she was taking a class there. In other words, she wanted to know if she belonged.

“Did I look like a thief, like someone who didn’t belong there? Did I look strange? Or did I just look black?” Painter wrote about the incident.

But the most foundational insult—the anecdote that kicks off her coming-of-age story, in fact—came during a particularly wounding exchange in which one of her art professors tells Painter that, while she may show and sell her work, she’ll never be an artist.

As a professor herself, Painter knew the teacher was in the wrong—what a profoundly shitty thing to do and say to a student. Ironically, the very thing that made Painter an outsider in art school—her age—helped gird her against the teacher’s callous assessment.

“One of the great things about being an old person and having this sort of ballast of myself, I knew that I was not going to take that as a judgment, as a true judgment,” she said. “But I also knew that if I had been 23 years old, I don’t know if I could have stood up to that.”

“One good thing for me about making images of myself is that I put more images of a black woman into the world.” — Nell Painter

But the book is less about the wounds inflicted over the journey than about the process of becoming an artist—of forging a new identity in the autumn of your life. Being hypervisible because of her age, Painter chooses to embrace it in her memoir. That includes embracing the word “old” itself.

“I would talk to friends about my [book] title and everything. And they’d say ‘Oh you’re not old, you’re older,’ sort of trying to soften it,” she said, likening it to when people would eschew the word “black” in the fifties for “colored.”

“That switch that happened in the ’60s and ’70s with ‘black,’ that’s what I’m going for. Those of us who are old should be embracing ‘old’ as no longer a spoiled identity, in the way that we can embrace ‘black’ as no longer a spoiled identity.”

Her mother’s own work as a writer served as inspiration, Painter says. Painter’s mother, Dona Irvin, published I Hope I Look that Good When I’m that Old at 85, and the book that is in part about embracing her beauty as an older, dark-skinned black woman.

“She taught me, (A) how you can use the word ‘old’ in a title. And the second thing was that in her generation and maybe even in mine, I don’t know about even in yours, could you say ‘I’m good looking? I mean could you say that out loud?’”

It’s that spirit of embrace—of finding new ways to define your worth, and to do so without apology—that makes Painter’s story resonate. Throughout the memoir, she includes work from various periods of her time in art school. Among the most striking images she includes are a series of self-portraits.

“One reason to make a lot of self portraits is because I’m always with me,” Painter says, adding that she doesn’t have to worry about “insulting” herself when doing a self-portrait. “I see myself in many many different ways. And so I was free.”

There is also the matter of representing black life in a world where such depictions are still very much the minority—“One good thing for me about making images of myself is that I put more images of a black woman into the world,” Painter says.

Painter writes about the challenges depicting black skin—an artistic act rife with political meaning. But the various portraits also captured her fluctuating moods. With art, there wasn’t just the freedom to construct a new self, but to deconstruct it.

“So many times I had freed myself from the gaze of others, from their judgments and expectations of an artist so ill-suited as me, only to lose sight of myself as I am and return to self doubt.” — Nell Painter

“I was so miserable at RISD and some of the self portraits are just these little tattered—I mean they’re almost abstract,” she says. “If you didn’t know they were self portraits or portraits of people, you might not know, because they’re fractured or splattered. But that’s good. I don’t know that I could do that to another subject.”

Painter  makes an important choice in the memoir to shy away from generalizations. She leans into the specificity of her experiences—the reader learns, for example, about how she came to be a “process artist,” that is, where the creation of the art itself is as much a focus, if not more so, than the end product itself. She describes her methods and her particular struggles with different media. She highlights the gulf between Newark, her home, and New York City, the center of the art world, and how the former simply doesn’t exist in the shadow of the latter. And Painter fully acknowledges the privilege of her position—apart from her sterling academic career, she also had a husband and a father who supported her financially during her time in art school. Having the time and the means to pursue an endeavor is a luxury that doesn’t escape her.

“Our culture wants from black writers and black women to make pronouncements about race, gender. To make pronouncements on behalf of black women generally,” Painter says. “I have not written this as ‘this is what black women experience.’ I have hardly generalized. It’s very personal.”

As Painter tells me, “I thought I was going to art school just to learn how to make art, but I learned so much more. And in a way, I remade myself in ways I didn’t expect.”

The act of becoming, of developing new identities and finding new ways to work, new ways to derive pleasure, new ways to be in the world, is not the provenance of any age. Nor is at a process that is ever fully complete.

“Transcendence has not come once and for all,” Painter writes toward the end of Old in Art School. “So many times I had freed myself from the gaze of others, from their judgments and expectations of an artist so ill-suited as me, only to lose sight of myself as I am and return to self doubt.”

“I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist, not a young anybody with a young anybody’s future before me. 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.”