STARRED REVIEW
July 2018

Paint by numbers

By Nell Painter
Review by

As director of the African American Studies program at Princeton University, Nell Painter seemed to be at the pinnacle of her distinguished career. The renowned historian had written numerous books, including the bestseller The History of White People. But at age 64, Painter surprised everyone by leaving Princeton to take up something completely different: art school. The road was anything but easy, as she explains in her bold, brave account, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over.

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BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, July 2018

As director of the African American Studies program at Princeton University, Nell Painter seemed to be at the pinnacle of her distinguished career. The renowned historian had written numerous books, including the bestseller The History of White People. But at age 64, Painter surprised everyone by leaving Princeton to take up something completely different: art school. The road was anything but easy, as she explains in her bold, brave account, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over.

Not satisfied with being what she calls a “Sunday painter,” she was determined to study art on a professional level. First she got a BFA at Rutgers University, then she earned an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Amid the tattoos, piercings and bright yellow hair of her fellow students, Painter’s fashion statement consisted of a white T-shirt, black pants and “sturdy” New Balance walking shoes. She was “an exotic in art school . . . a creature from another planet.” Her confidence was hardly boosted when a RISD teacher informed her that she would never be an artist. Adding to her turmoil were anguish and grief over the fact that Painter’s mother was dying on the West Coast, leaving her father depressed and needy, necessitating cross-country trips and interventions.

Nonetheless, Painter persevered, enjoying moments of absolute euphoria at having the time and freedom to paint, while also experiencing interludes of extreme self-doubt and loneliness. In the end, she triumphed by relying on what she calls her “old standbys: education and hard work.”

Painter concludes that “the Art World is racist as hell and unashamed of it,” but she was able to find her own artistic voice by incorporating both history and text into her work which, in a way, brought her career full circle.

Old in Art School is a fascinating memoir about Painter’s daring choice to follow a passion with courage and intellect, even when the odds seemed firmly stacked against her.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Nell Painter about Old in Art School.

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

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Old in Art School

Old in Art School

By Nell Painter
Counterpoint
ISBN 9781640090613

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