OLD IN ART SCHOOL by Nell Irvin Painter


A Memoir of Starting Over
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A noted historian tells about her daring career move to become an artist.

At the age of 64, Painter (American History, Emerita, Princeton Univ.; The History of White People, 2010, etc.), president of the prestigious Organization of American Historians, former director of the Association of Black Women Historians, and author of seven books, enrolled as an undergraduate at Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University. In a candid, captivating memoir, the author recounts her experiences at Rutgers and in a Master of Fine Arts Program at the Rhode Island School of Design, which raised for her salient questions about identity, creativity, ageism, and racism. Some teachers proclaimed that she would never become an Artist because she “lacked an essential component, some ineffable inner quality.” Although as a professor she believed heartily that skills could be learned through seriousness, persistence, discipline, and hard work, she felt her teachers’ condemnation “piercing my student’s psyche,” causing her to question her ability and the quality of her work. Often discouraged, still she defiantly pursued two goals: “to make work that engaged the eye” and to celebrate, in portraits, her “intellectual women friends.” One teacher dismissed her second goal as mere “illustration.” As to the first, she discovered throughout her art education the vagaries of criteria used to assess quality. During her first year at RISD, she felt reduced to a “pathetic, insecure little stump,” unsure whether her teachers and classmates “were critiquing me, old-black-woman-totally-out-of-place, or critiquing my work, which was not good enough.” Painter admits having felt like a misfit in art school, which leads her to reflect about ageism and racism (both rampant in the rarefied art world). Awarded studio residencies, including an artist-scholar residency at Yale, she proved her worth. 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.

Pub Date: June 19th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-64009-061-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2018


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