July 2018

Nell Painter

An apt surname for the self-described “world’s uncoolest artist”
Interview by

In her memoir Old in Art School, Nell Painter surprises everyone by returning to college in her 60s to earn degrees in one of her passions: painting.

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In her memoir Old in Art School, Nell Painter surprises everyone by returning to college in her 60s to earn degrees in one of her passions: painting.

How did you make your decision to leave a chaired professorship at Princeton to go to art school?
My decision to retire from Princeton a little early came in several steps, beginning with my mother’s turn to book writing when she retired back in the 1980s. I was always close to my mother, close to both my parents, actually, feeling my family as a bulwark against a basically hostile—well, if not hostile, at least not trustworthy—society. It took her 10 years to write and publish her first book and 10 years for the second. She was just that disciplined over the long haul, with discipline and persistence her gifts to me. My mother showed me you could change vocations, even though the payoff might not come immediately. The point was to do what you wanted to do. Looking at her, I figured, hell, I could do that, too. It just so happened that what I left was a chaired professorship at Princeton.

My friends were amazed, even dazzled by the possibility of walking away. Looking back, I realize I didn’t see things this way at the time: It might have seemed to some of them that an Ivy League chaired professorship was life’s apogee, as though imagination stretched that far and no farther. But I didn’t identify myself that closely with my job. I heard their curiosity, as they wondered what it would be like to start something entirely new. They asked me to send back a report. Which I am now doing—in utter candor.

Your father taught you to draw, and your mother taught you the art of reinvention by starting over at age 65 and becoming an author. Your mother died during your art school years, leaving your father deeply saddened before his death. You write, "My early years as a painter . . . felt as much about family and loss as about art making." How has the loss of your parents affected your art?
The short answer is I don’t know how my parents’ deaths affected my art, as I didn’t make art about their dying. In fact, I reproached myself for not being able to draw my mother as she lay dying, even though her dying made a riveting visual spectacle. I simply could not take what felt like a step away from her to turn her into art. Art-making did not come automatically to me then.

But as I ponder your question, I think the answer, maybe even the answers, lie first in my chapter “A Bad Decision” and in my inability to dedicate myself single-mindedly, whole-heartedly, full-timedly to making art. My decision to go to graduate school before completing four years of undergraduate art study was not the right thing to do. I should have stayed at Mason Gross for another year. But I felt time pressing down on me urgently as something in short supply. Only as I was writing my memoir did I relate that feeling of time’s limitation to my mother’s impending death and my attachment to her. My time felt like her time.

Throughout the whole of my five years of art school, my parents stayed on my mind. They were hardly ever off my mind or out of my worries. There were daily phone calls and frequent transcontinental trips. Sometimes I could combine art with parental care, as in “Bedside Collages.” But art-time always felt distracted, though graduate school normally offers undistracted time to work flat out and full time, to experiment in depth and find the way to make art your very own way. I felt that sometimes and cherished the sensation. But often as not, my attention was divided. I still miss the opportunity to make art intensely over a relatively long period of time. What a gift that would be!

As for my parents, rather than the import of their loss, I appreciate the gifts they gave me during their lives. They assured me I was a wonderful person who could do whatever I wanted, the basis for the ego strength to take chances. They were hardly wealthy people, but, something of supreme importance, they made sure I never had to make decisions based on fear of running out of money. People don’t talk about that very much, but financial stability is crucially important when you’re making decisions about what you can or can’t do, especially regarding something as expensive and unlikely to pay off as art school. If you’re African-American, freedom from money worries is even less to be taken for granted.

Bette Davis once said that old age is no place for sissies. And neither is art school, it seems, especially when your age made you feel like “a creature from another planet.” Of course, things weren’t helped when your teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) declared that you would never be an artist. Did you ever feel you had made a mistake leaving such a successful career to go to art school?
Oh, boy, did I ever question my sanity for leaving the life I knew how to live for one I felt lost in! The hard part about art for me—one of the hard parts—was my sense of not knowing what was good and not good. Not knowing why my art was not good. One great thing about scholarship is the existence of established criteria of judgment. People don’t always respect those criteria, and there’s plenty of room for old-boy networks and the workings of privilege. Still, the rules of the game are pretty apparent. Not so with art.

I still sometimes feel like the worst painter in the world, but I don’t care anymore. There are awful painters who have their followings; there are more excellent painters in the world than can receive their due.

I love your response to that teacher: “Henry, that’s bullshit.” Although at first you enjoyed a sense of contentment and euphoria at RISD, you ultimately concluded, “this was not my place, and these were not my people.” Looking back, would you do things differently?
As for “not my place, not my people,” the fundamental problems were my age and myself, neither of which I could change. The thing I would do differently would be staying another year at Mason Gross. But that would have just made me a year older, and I’d still be myself: black, academic, female. A fundamental matter was black-in-America. Yes, yes, yes, I know nonblack people often find it difficult to feel at home or find their own people. Missing home may be a basic American or basic human condition. But on top of basic American, you have to add being black in America. Even if you don’t run into discrimination, there are the everyday interactions with nonblack Americans that are exhausting, that remind you that you seem not to belong. This is not anything I can change. And that’s not to add in the matter of working across generations.

Your professors were astounded by the progress you made during the summer between your first and second year of grad school. Did you surprise yourself as well?
During that summer, my growth pleased me enormously. I suppose I took for granted that the work I was enjoying would be good work. But I can’t say I was surprised. My progress didn’t surprise me, but I was amazed by my teachers’ surprise at the beginning of the second fall semester. I have never gotten over how little some people can expect of me.

You note that “the Art World is racist as hell and unashamed of it.” Are things improving?
Everybody always wants to think things are “improving,” so I’ll say they are: Yes. Things are improving. The work of women artists, old women artists, black artists, black women artists, old black women artists is being seen as never before. But basically, as my more experienced art mentors told me, the Art World is racist as hell and unashamed of it. The Art World is part of the U.S., which, if you read the papers you know, is still racist as hell. The improvement is that some Americans are starting to see that and to take steps to address longstanding discriminatory practices. There’s still a long way to go before I will say there’s been fundamental improvement.

When it came time to write your thesis, your first draft was full of anger about injustices in the art world. You, an award-winning historian and author, ended up going to the RISD writing center for help purging that anger. How did that go? Was the person helping you intimidated?
As you can see from my answer to the previous question, my “anger” hasn’t been purged. But I had the sense to see my shortcoming as the author of an MFA thesis and to get the instruction I needed. I don’t think Teacher Jen in the writing center was intimidated. She had seen my problem before and told me of other instances in which MFA students had had to find means of tamping down indignation and to focus on the visual aspects of their work within the context of art.

You’ve written numerous books, but none so personal as Old in Art School. How tough was that?
Writing personally was hard as hell and took several years. I had to dig out experiences and sensations that lay under my consciousness’s surface, and I had to see other people around me, fellow students especially, but also teachers, in situations where I was intensely self-centered. As I wrote through my sufferings, I came to see that maybe they weren’t as awful as I had made them out to be. I still say that earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard was a piece of cake compared to earning an MFA at RISD. But now I’m wondering if the comparison is shaped by the decades separating the two experiences. Maybe in 33 years, RISD will seem like a piece of cake compared to—what, assisted living?

Near the end of your book you write, “Like artists the world over, my bayoneted, hand-to-hand struggle between insecurity and self-confidence never ends.” Did you have to endure such a constant battle with insecurity as a historian? Are you keeping your artistic struggle in check?
I never had to wage such an anti-insecurity battle as a historian because I loved research and writing, and I knew what I needed to do to succeed. I did it. I hit all the marks (publication, promotion, tenure, fellowships) and received sufficient honors.

I love making art—the process, I mean. And I have enough of a sense of what is my own art to feel good about that. At the same time, I know I’m the world’s uncoolest artist, and I’m OK with that. If what I make is not good enough, that’s its nature. That’s what I make and who I am: the world’s uncoolest artist.

You’ve incorporated both history and text (including pages from your own books) into your artwork, bringing your career into a glorious, unified circle. Would you say that you've found your voice? How would you summarize your artistic style and goals?
Thanks for “a glorious, unified circle,” which sounds really good! I hadn’t thought of my work in so assured a way. I saw more a long work-in-progress, a documentation of how one person’s work changes and grows over time as she starts over. I wanted to show some dumb early stuff and some pieces growing out of one another as closer and farther relations. I do feel I’ve found my manual + digital process, which you may call a “voice” or “style,” often related to history and sometimes embracing text. That sense of finding myself visually occurred with “Art History by Nell Painter,” which is why I pretty much end there. I don’t know that I have a “goal,” because I don’t feel myself going anywhere with an end or objective other than making art. Making the art that gratifies and interests me. Freedom attracted me to art making. Still does.

What are you working on now?
I just made four digital collages for the Three Hole Press publication of Daaimah Mubashshir’s plays, The Immeasurable Want of Light. Otherwise, tasks related to the publication and promotion of Old in Art School have taken up virtually all my time this year and precluded immersion on art. I have started something I call “Book Book” that will embody the experience of talking about my memoir over this year. It begins with two photos of me reading my Blackstone audiobook in a tiny studio on 9th Avenue in New York City last month.

I think about two or three artists’ books that will take time to envision and to make, as I have only fragments in mind right now. I will need to carve out time to work on them concentratedly.

How do you feel when you’re in that artistic “zone”?
I feel like I will never stop. Every image demands elaboration—into another shape or another color or another piece. This concentration, this play, makes me feel contented, even when I see I need more time to get to another place or a different image. When I have to stop, I’m usually among images I couldn’t have imagined when I started.

What advice do you have for other “old” people who might be contemplating reinventing themselves?
Advice?! As I say at the end of Old in Art School, people don’t usually want advice; they want to be listened to. So I’d say find someone who will listen to you and who knows something about what you’re thinking about doing. I’d say try it out for a little while. Take a class at your local community college. But my biggest, most important piece of advice, especially for old black women, for black women, for old women, for all women, for black people, for people young and old, for nonblack people is: Don’t see yourself through other people’s eyes.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Old in Art School.

A portion of this article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by John Emerson.

Get the Book

Old in Art School

Old in Art School

By Nell Painter
ISBN 9781640090613

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