Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Hardcover)

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One of O: The Oprah Magazine's Top Books of Summer

"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 of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow

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.

About the Author


NELL PAINTER is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. Her acclaimed works of history include Standing at Armageddon, Sojourner Truth, and the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, which have received widespread attention for their insights into how we have historically viewed and translated ideas of gender, value, hierarchy, and race. She holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her visual artwork has been shown at numerous galleries and in many collections, including the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and Gallery Aferro. She lives in Newark, New Jersey and the Adirondacks.

Praise For…


Praise for Old in Art School

Editors' Spring Pick: 1 of 34 Titles to Wave a Flag About (Library Journal)


"Painter chronicles her experience of returning to art school as an older African American woman with honest and elegant prose. Her narrative weaves expertly among her art school experience, family upbringing, the loss of her mother, caring for her father at a distance, and art itself . . . Painter’s memoir presents her as an accessible artist, warm and inviting and keen to share her hard-won insights into her craft." —Library Journal (starred review)

"This is a courageous, intellectually stimulating, and wholly entertaining story of one woman reconciling two worlds and being open to the possibilities and changes life offers." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Her memoir . . . is many things: an appraisal of artists living and dead, a hymn to her home state of New Jersey, a meditation on her parents’ deaths, a reflection on the travails of leading a scholarly association. It’s also a sharp critique of the teaching methods and social environment in M.F.A. programs." —The Chronicle of Higher Education

"A candid, captivating memoir . . . The author offers perceptive insights about the meaning of art: the difference between thinking like a historian and an artist; the 'contented concentration' she feels when making art; and the works of many black artists. A spirited chronicle of transformation and personal triumph." —Kirkus Reviews

"Making important observations about age, gender, and looks in the art world, Old in Art School tells more than just Nell's story as she transitions from the academic world to the art world. For anyone who needs a pick-me-up this summer, this memoir will give you hope that it's never too late to pursue your passion and accomplish your lifelong goals." —PopSugar

"An alert observer, Painter renders her experience with humor, with skepticism, with anxiety, and in many voices . . . Old in Art School succeeds as a story of a budding artist, and also as guidebook: you can design your own art education by following along with Painter’s readings and reflections on artists in the canon; women artists who Painter appreciates, and elevates, and sometimes befriends; artists who become important to Painter’s interests and to her cultivated eye . . . Painter communicates in language which is bodacious and, in moments, color-saturated . . . If you read Old in Art School, you will learn, from Nell Painter, what it means to speak in color." —Women's Review of Books

"Nell Painter’s masterful, disarmingly witty, and profound book Old in Art School will change your perspective about what is possible in the full arc of a life. Her probing book about [her] art school journey, as sage as it is humorous, revels in the untold magic of exploring how beginnings can happen at all stages of the journey. This book is indispensable nourishment for the creative soul." —Sarah Lewis, Harvard University, author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

"Nell Painter has courage and intelligence. She reminds us that the only option as we grow older is to grow younger. Never forgetting our curiosity and passion, we are well armed for the challenge." —Maira Kalman, author of The Principles of Uncertainty and Beloved Dog

"Old in Art School is Nell Painter’s journey from famous historian to humble art student at age sixty-four. Along the way, she chronicles her own family history, including a mother who reinvented herself at the same age! Painter blows up treasured clichés about what it means to be 'an artist' and who fits that role, presenting us with comic scenes of questionable pedagogy. This book should have a corrective impact on art education—it deserves to be widely read and hotly discussed!" —Joyce Kozloff, artist

"Even before a teacher tells her, 'You’ll never be an artist,' Painter’s story wins us over with its contrarian premise. Among twenty-somethings, Painter proves herself a sharp observer—not just of art school partying, pedagogy, and process, but also of generational, sexual, and racial blind spots. Painter has produced a cheerful and beguiling memoir, one that will inspire readers of any age to consider starting again." —Alexi Worth, artist

"Reading Nell Painter’s Old in Art School gave me immense pleasure. Memoirs by black women artists are extremely rare, and this one is so beautifully written, so perfectly formed in terms of its storytelling trajectory, with so many delectable details about art techniques and subject matter, the relationship of the work to her previous projects as a celebrated historian, and her life struggles as the daughter of once-perfect parents, now aged and with health difficulties. Old in Art School seems both definitive and unforgettable. The idea that this brilliant woman would move from a field in which her accomplishments are regarded as superlative to one in which she is constantly plagued by self-doubt and the shortcomings of her 'twentieth-century eyes' alone makes it worth the price of admission." —Michele Wallace, author of Dark Designs and Visual Culture

"One of our most distinguished scholars of race and racism has written an incisive, surprising, eloquent, and often wry account of what it means to go back to school at 64, the age at which most academics contemplate retiring from it. Along the way, Nell Painter helps us to see the world as art, art as the world, and to understand arduous, creative self-transformation as toil worth the trouble. Old in Art School is as edgy as a contemporary work of art: bold in form, assured in line and shape, unflinching in its textured analysis of the ways race, gender, and age color how we perceive the world and how the world perceives us." —Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux

"With wisdom, insight, brutal honesty, and flashes of humor, Nell Painter shares her journey to become an artist in this fascinating, original memoir. Old in Art School renders both the insecurity and elation of embarking on this path after a long and distinguished academic career. Her courage, sensitivity, and keen observation offer a rare and needed portrait of an older woman determined to live a creative life on her own terms." —Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II

"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. This is not a story about starting over; it’s about continuing on the journey. Nell Painter has taken the coming of age story to a new level—this is what you get when a wise person gets even wiser, when a true artist spreads her wings." —Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow

"Old in Art School is brilliantly written. A rare reflection of an artist and scholar who combines her voice and vision in this extraordinary work. Painter masterfully weaves a highly personal story into one that situates her art making with her history making . . . It is a book about belonging and longing; expectations and disappointments; beauty and humor. It is engrossing and heroic." —Deborah Willis, New York University, author of Envisioning Emancipation

"We all dream of starting over, but Nell Painter really did it. This unsparing account of inspiration and the creative process takes on racism, loneliness, self-loathing, the hazards of aging, and bad manners in the art world. Funny, edifying, and always mesmerizing, this book is also about searching for—and finding (most of the time)—happiness." —Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln

“‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ the doomed literary charmer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously lamented. Not so says Nell Painter. A distinguished professor of history at Princeton and author of the celebrated The History of White People, Painter has done what few academics dare—begin again by pursuing a different vocation: in her case, a long-standing drive to make art. In this lively account, she describes how she started over from scratch by enrolling as an undergraduate art major at Rutgers and then a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Much like her classmates, Painter’s dedication faces competition from ‘real life’—in her case, the declining health of her aged father rather than the social and romantic dramas of twentysomethings—but she also extracts important lessons about gender and racial politics in contemporary America that, contrary to the norm in art schools, demonstrate that such complex issues of ‘identity’ can be addressed in plain but vivid language, even as she gives artistic questions the edge. All in all, Painter makes an invigoratingly affirmative, refreshingly unjaded case—supported by her paintings, drawings, and books—for following one’s passion whenever it asserts itself and wherever it leads.” —Robert Storr, professor of painting and printmaking, Yale University School of Art

Praise for The History of White People

"Presenting vivid psychological portraits of Emerson and dozens of other figures variously famous and obscure, and carefully mapping the links between them, Painter's narrative succeeds as an engaging and sophisticated intellectual history, as well as an eloquent reminder of the fluidity (and perhaps futility) of racial categories." —Booklist (starred review)

"Painter reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (ideals of white beauty [became] firmly embedded in the science of race), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. What we can see, the author observes, depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for. For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens." —Publishers Weekly

"Deeply researched, intelligent, and wonderfully common-sensical, this is a ground-breaking book, and if we're ever going to get to that so- called 'post-racial' society, a necessary book. It locates race where it actually exists, inside our heads, and shows us how recently it came to reside there." —Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction

"In this wide-ranging and passionate book, Nell Painter makes the story of American history into something new. Her array of writers, artists, and politicians, some familiar and some surprising, struggle mightily to create a concept many Americans of all backgrounds now take for granted: 'white people.' " —Edward Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies

"The History of White People is a brilliant meditation on the invention of the idea of 'whiteness.' Deeply researched and elegantly written, Painter's presentation will certainly spark conversation and controversy—as it should. Painter's high-octane intelligence makes her perfectly suited to the task." —Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

"Nell Painter's The History of White People is an amazing race-bending narrative. With grace and energy, she confronts the myth of white people as race-less. She offers an eye-opening examination of slavery, the creation of white-ness, and the way in which racial categories have been both false and destructive. This is story-telling at its best." —Ellen Goodman, syndicated columnist, Washington Post Writers Group

"Not since Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man has there been such a synoptically provocative appreciation of the myths by which a now demographically challenged people sustained themselves and restrained others." —David Levering Lewis, professor of history, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868–1919: Biography of a Race

Praise for Creating Black Americans

"Princeton history professor Nell Irvin Painter brings her considerable skills and insight to Creating Black Americans. Her excellent introduction to the black American experience will serve any interested reader well, though it will find its largest audience in college classrooms. History, the author notes, exists in both the past and present. What we wish to know and how we understand it changes over time. And Painter's compelling use of black art, mostly created since the mid-20th century, to illustrate earlier times, emphasizes this point to great effect. Drawing on the research of a generation of African-American historians, Painter also sets the record straight on a number of questions of the country's past. She re-emphasizes that slavery was not just a Southern problem. Racial slavery in North America developed over several decades in the 18th century, laying the foundations for the entire American economy. Slaves grew the commodities that Americans exported across the globe, of course. But slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were the bedrock of vast fortunes in the North, too, including the precursors to the Bank of America and other financial houses. Artists—like historians, like ordinary people—sift the past to make sense of it for our times. Through word and image, Nell Irvin Painter has produced a narrative of African-American history that will profit its readers." —New York Post

"Painter, a Princeton professor of history, integrates art and history in this fascinating book, filled with powerful images of black art from photographs to paintings to quilts that tell the story of black America. The book begins with the history and imagery of slavery through the Civil War and emancipation, then traces the cultural influences of the civil rights movement, the black power era, and ends with the hip-hop era. Through each period, Painter offers historical context for the artistic expressions and examines how more contemporary sensibilities shaped remembrances of historical events. She explores the ways that context and historical interpretation influence the artist's perspective and is subject to great variation over time. Although most of the works presented were created after the mid-twentieth century, they reflect a broader historical span as black artists have attempted to fill in the void of black images from earlier American history. Readers interested in black American art and history will appreciate this beautiful and well-researched book." —Booklist

"Nell Irvin Painter is a towering intellectual figure and pre-eminent historian in American life. This overarching narrative is the best we have that makes sense of the doings and sufferings of black people from 1619 to 2005." —Cornel West, Princeton University

"A brilliant historian, Nell Irvin Painter has written an innovative account of African Americans from the colonial era to our own. She challenges us to think critically about the historical meanings conveyed via artistic creations. In other words, Creating Black America offers a new way of knowing, imagining, and visualizing the past of our present." —Darlene Clark Hine, co-author of The African-American Odyssey

"There is a philosopher's axiom, 'To be is to be perceived.' Nell Painter's fascinatingly significant Creating Black Americans captures its subject-matter through the self-images people of color have produced over time. She has written a critical history of self-perception that deserves wide review and lively discussion." —David Levering Lewis, University Professor and Professor of History, New York University

"Utilizing her pathbreaking approach to historical writing, a hallmark in her brilliant career, Nell Painter interweaves straight-forward narrative with the vivid portraits of black artists to record how an unloved people created a vibrant but still endangered black America." —Derrick Bell, author of Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

"From the Triangle Trade to Russel Simmons, this comprehensive review of African American history is a lively, lucid and indispensable resource. Nell Painter is our foremost chronicler of the black experience in the United States." —Patricia Williams, Columbia University School of Law

"This new study by Princeton historian Painter aims not merely to provide an updated scholarly account of African-American history, but to enrich our understanding of it with the subjective views of black artists, which she places alongside the more objective views of academics. The result is a book that contains both a compelling narrative and numerous arresting images, but that does not always successfully tie the two together. To be fair, Painter is a historian, not an art critic. Her primary purpose in including artworks is to illustrate historical points and to show black Americans as creators of their own history. Nevertheless, readers will likely be frustrated by the lack of analysis accompanying the images—Painter simply summarizes most of the art works, leaving much of their complexity and ambiguity unexplored. Thus, she inadvertently diminishes their power as complicated pieces of individual expression. Painter is clearly adept at writing straightforward history, however, and on this front the book is lucid, engaging and topical. It does an excellent job revealing both the African and the American dimensions of African-American history. And her work has the additional merit of following the past into the present, tracing the history of black Americans all the way up to the hip-hop era, the controversies surrounding black voters in the 2000 presidential election and the ongoing issues of incarceration and health care." —Publishers Weekly

Praise for The History of White People

"Presenting vivid psychological portraits of Emerson and dozens of other figures variously famous and obscure, and carefully mapping the links between them, Painter's narrative succeeds as an engaging and sophisticated intellectual history, as well as an eloquent reminder of the fluidity (and perhaps futility) of racial categories." —Booklist (starred review)

"Painter reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (ideals of white beauty [became] firmly embedded in the science of race), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. What we can see, the author observes, depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for. For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens." —Publishers Weekly

"Deeply researched, intelligent, and wonderfully common-sensical, this is a ground-breaking book, and if we're ever going to get to that so- called 'post-racial' society, a necessary book. It locates race where it actually exists, inside our heads, and shows us how recently it came to reside there." —Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction

"In this wide-ranging and passionate book, Nell Painter makes the story of American history into something new. Her array of writers, artists, and politicians, some familiar and some surprising, struggle mightily to create a concept many Americans of all backgrounds now take for granted: 'white people.' " —Edward Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies

"The History of White People is a brilliant meditation on the invention of the idea of 'whiteness.' Deeply researched and elegantly written, Painter's presentation will certainly spark conversation and controversy—as it should. Painter's high-octane intelligence makes her perfectly suited to the task." —Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

"Nell Painter's The History of White People is an amazing race-bending narrative. With grace and energy, she confronts the myth of white people as race-less. She offers an eye-opening examination of slavery, the creation of white-ness, and the way in which racial categories have been both false and destructive. This is story-telling at its best." —Ellen Goodman, syndicated columnist, Washington Post Writers Group

"Not since Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man has there been such a synoptically provocative appreciation of the myths by which a now demographically challenged people sustained themselves and restrained others." —David Levering Lewis, professor of history, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868–1919: Biography of a Race

Praise for Creating Black Americans

"Princeton history professor Nell Irvin Painter brings her considerable skills and insight to Creating Black Americans. Her excellent introduction to the black American experience will serve any interested reader well, though it will find its largest audience in college classrooms. History, the author notes, exists in both the past and present. What we wish to know and how we understand it changes over time. And Painter's compelling use of black art, mostly created since the mid-20th century, to illustrate earlier times, emphasizes this point to great effect. Drawing on the research of a generation of African-American historians, Painter also sets the record straight on a number of questions of the country's past. She re-emphasizes that slavery was not just a Southern problem. Racial slavery in North America developed over several decades in the 18th century, laying the foundations for the entire American economy. Slaves grew the commodities that Americans exported across the globe, of course. But slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were the bedrock of vast fortunes in the North, too, including the precursors to the Bank of America and other financial houses. Artists—like historians, like ordinary people—sift the past to make sense of it for our times. Through word and image, Nell Irvin Painter has produced a narrative of African-American history that will profit its readers." —New York Post

"Painter, a Princeton professor of history, integrates art and history in this fascinating book, filled with powerful images of black art from photographs to paintings to quilts that tell the story of black America. The book begins with the history and imagery of slavery through the Civil War and emancipation, then traces the cultural influences of the civil rights movement, the black power era, and ends with the hip-hop era. Through each period, Painter offers historical context for the artistic expressions and examines how more contemporary sensibilities shaped remembrances of historical events. She explores the ways that context and historical interpretation influence the artist's perspective and is subject to great variation over time. Although most of the works presented were created after the mid-twentieth century, they reflect a broader historical span as black artists have attempted to fill in the void of black images from earlier American history. Readers interested in black American art and history will appreciate this beautiful and well-researched book." —Booklist

"Nell Irvin Painter is a towering intellectual figure and pre-eminent historian in American life. This overarching narrative is the best we have that makes sense of the doings and sufferings of black people from 1619 to 2005." —Cornel West, Princeton University

"A brilliant historian, Nell Irvin Painter has written an innovative account of African Americans from the colonial era to our own. She challenges us to think critically about the historical meanings conveyed via artistic creations. In other words, Creating Black America offers a new way of knowing, imagining, and visualizing the past of our present." —Darlene Clark Hine, co-author of The African-American Odyssey

"There is a philosopher's axiom, 'To be is to be perceived.' Nell Painter's fascinatingly significant Creating Black Americans captures its subject-matter through the self-images people of color have produced over time. She has written a critical history of self-perception that deserves wide review and lively discussion." —David Levering Lewis, University Professor and Professor of History, New York University

"Utilizing her pathbreaking approach to historical writing, a hallmark in her brilliant career, Nell Painter interweaves straight-forward narrative with the vivid portraits of black artists to record how an unloved people created a vibrant but still endangered black America." —Derrick Bell, author of Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

"From the Triangle Trade to Russel Simmons, this comprehensive review of African American history is a lively, lucid and indispensable resource. Nell Painter is our foremost chronicler of the black experience in the United States." —Patricia Williams, Columbia University School of Law

"This new study by Princeton historian Painter aims not merely to provide an updated scholarly account of African-American history, but to enrich our understanding of it with the subjective views of black artists, which she places alongside the more objective views of academics. The result is a book that contains both a compelling narrative and numerous arresting images, but that does not always successfully tie the two together. To be fair, Painter is a historian, not an art critic. Her primary purpose in including artworks is to illustrate historical points and to show black Americans as creators of their own history. Nevertheless, readers will likely be frustrated by the lack of analysis accompanying the images—Painter simply summarizes most of the art works, leaving much of their complexity and ambiguity unexplored. Thus, she inadvertently diminishes their power as complicated pieces of individual expression. Painter is clearly adept at writing straightforward history, however, and on this front the book is lucid, engaging and topical. It does an excellent job revealing both the African and the American dimensions of African-American history. And her work has the additional merit of following the past into the present, tracing the history of black Americans all the way up to the hip-hop era, the controversies surrounding black voters in the 2000 presidential election and the ongoing issues of incarceration and health care." —Publishers Weekly


Coverage from NPR

Product Details
ISBN: 9781640090613
ISBN-10: 1640090614
Publisher: Counterpoint LLC
Publication Date: June 19th, 2018
Pages: 352
Language: English