A Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobigraphy "A smart, funny and compelling case for going after your heart's desires, no matter your age." --Essence "Old in Art School is a glorious achievement―bighearted and critical, insightful and entertaining. This book is a cup of courage for everyone who wants to change their lives." ―Tayari Jones, author ofAn American Marriage Following her retirement from Princeton University, celebrated historian Dr. Nell Irvin Painter surprised everyone in her life by returning to school--in her sixties--to earn a BFA and MFA in painting. In Old in Art School, she travels from her beloved Newark to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design; finds meaning in the artists she loves, even as she comes to understand how they may be undervalued; and struggles with the unstable balance between the pursuit of art and the inevitable, sometimes painful demands of a life fully lived. How are women and artists seen and judged by their age, looks, and race? What does it mean when someone says, "You will never be an artist"? Who defines what "An Artist" is and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference? Old in Art School is Nell Painter's ongoing exploration of those crucial questions. Bringing to bear incisive insights from two careers, Painter weaves a frank, funny, and often surprising tale of her move from academia to art.
I enjoyed being along on that journey with her, from eager artist to disillusioned graduate student dealing with a multitude of outsider statuses—female, black, over 60, out of sync with art world hip (marked, among other things, by a love of incorporating history and text into her work), with a firmly established non-art career already under her belt (Painter was a tenured, well-published professor of history at Princeton), and the caretaker of elderly parents—to a truly adventurous artist who believes in her own voice, her own hand, and her own old self. If my description of it sounds sunshiney, the book is decidedly not. But it’s affirming, maybe especially for those of us who aspire to make art in the face of the rest of life, or just to give fewer fucks. There’s a lot of incidentally good art history slipped in, and some good description of techniques, as well. This is a genuinely outside-the-lines memoir, and I’m so pleased it is.
So far, my main criticism is where the writing occasionally descends into some whining and moaning from an academic perspective. I can understand that Painter was a highly respected history prof and that she needs to express her sorrow over leaving that career. This may have coloured her experience of being back in school again in a way that those without the 'professor' background wouldn't have encountered.
As I say, still reading the book...
But here, being a black female that is also older than the norm, she has his the trifecta of ismisms: race, sex, age. All she needs is a disability and it’s a royal flush of disregard. But having a mother who broke from established expectations and started her own writing career in her later 60’s, it gave Painter a template of chutzpah to be herself, unfiltered, unrestrained.
The backstory of how her family set the stage for her aria, there is much emphasis on the sad hindrance of race. Then we get the paragraphs of all her extensive accomplishments, awards and accolades. Initially a writer of history, she finds herself ruminating over early days of drawing and is pulled back into that realm. Onward to college and her degrees therein.
We spend some time with her in Newark, reminiscing on neighbors and events. Take a few classes with her at Rutgers, meeting a few of her classmates and teachers. She mentions numerous artists, from which she draws both admiration and frustration, citing the why’s of the what’s.
Mixing in some humor (as when she compares walking into an art supply store to entering a vagina, inviting and sensuous) she trudges through classes while holding down outside duties and trying to complete a book she’d been writing. Supported by her husband, she at least had that relief.
Onto Mason Gross. Feeling a bit more sure of herself, she readily doles out the snark on artists she is less fond of. (She may have yet another career as a stand-up comedian)
Interesting how she paid tribute to female artists by copying their work, often by gridded squares, and always with admiration. Much mention of the lack of recognition given women in the art field (Hello Guerrilla Girls!)
Her chapter “Look Like An Artist” was redundant to me. Tho a frame can really set a piece for show, I never really got the artist costume. Hell, just wear what you wore when you painted the thing.... That would be a true artist attire. Still, I had to laugh at how she, so much older than her classmates, tried to look the look... despite her “Passed fuck-by date.” This really has some good laughs in it.
The chapter on not being able to draw her dying mother was touching. She and her father, at her mother’s bedside, reading Obama’s memoir aloud, which segued into a bit of politics (as does my every book club meeting) but circled back to her mother.
Onward to her time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she rents an apartment, studio space and attains “contentment” ... albeit apart from her husband and pets. Here, again, she nods to the numerous artists who inspire her as she lolls away the hours at the Fleet Library. She creates, receives responses, shares hers, and learns. Aside from the art imbuing, she learns that no matter where or with whom, isms exist, isms interfere. (I have to wonder how her co-students & teachers felt if they read about themselves here.) It’s not long before that “contentment” is abated and she drifts alone in her graduate goals.
Everywhere she turns, it seems everyone repeats their mantra of squelching “You can not draw. You can not paint. You are not an artist!” What tenacity she had. What faith in oneself. What all out chutzpah!
And if dealing with all the perpetual negativity we’re not despairing enough, she had the constant pleas of her depressed father for her company, her time, her devotion.
But that changes. Perhaps it was recognition of her work aside as a historian, archived and praised, or the books she authored, also praised, or just her unending impetus to be taken seriously. Whatever it took, she got it at last.
"It took me years in art school to recognize my twentieth-century eyes as my major handicap as an artist....My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of failure: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes needing to be cleaned up."
Nell Painter was an esteemed historian, author of several best-selling books, and a tenured professor of history at Princeton when in her mid-60's she decided to give up her historian career and go to art school. When she entered the freshman class at Rutgers art college she noticed that, unlike during her historian career when her defining characteristics to her peers were that she is Black, and a woman, now, her art school colleagues defined her by her age: she was Old!
This engaging memoir follows her over the next several years as she earns an undergraduate art degree and then her MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. I loved her discussions of how she conceived her art and her artistic processes. There are discussions of art theory, and the book contains many illustrations of her work. I enjoyed learning (mostly by googling after her brief references to them) about dozens of contemporary artists, including many overlooked female artists and artists of color. I did sometimes find the discussions of what constitutes a capital "A" Artist, which is what she (and other art school students) yearned to be, a bit pretentious, but I think she herself ultimately came to the conclusion that being a capital "A" Artist is not where it's at.
The memoir is not just about art. Along the way she must balance her other life obligations, something her younger cohorts did not have to contend with along the way to becoming capital "A" Artists. ("'An Artist' finds her identity in art, does nothing but make art and does it all the time, making work of unimaginable creativity.") During her time in art school, she had to contend with the care and ultimate deaths of her elderly parents. She also had to complete and edit a major history book, as well as to fulfill her duties as president of an important association of historians.
This book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography. It's also on sale for Kindle right now for only $3.99.
3 1/2 stars
One personally discouraging quote from the book:
"The combination of gender plus money plus age plays into the stereotype of amateurism, even of inability, as in the impossibility of an old woman with money making good art."
Some very interesting aspects, and she seems like an ebullient character who might be fun to be be around (as she did on a PBS segment I saw). But the book needed some serious editing, and if you're not into art, art school, the art world, skip it.