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Nell Irvin Painter: A Portrait of Reinvention

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Somebody with the surname “Painter” was, perhaps, destined to become one.

But in the case of Nell Irvin Painter, destiny took its time. It wasn’t until she was 64 that Painter enrolled as an undergraduate in the Mason Gross School of Art at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Art was a second career for Painter. She was a celebrated historian, with a doctorate from Harvard, a half-dozen well-regarded books to her name, and a prestigious professorship at Princeton, when she retired at 62 from the world of academia to pursue her passion for art.

Today, at 76, Painter is an accomplished artist, with her work regularly on display in museums, galleries and libraries. She recounts her experience of reinvention in her book Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over.

Painter spoke to Get Old from her art studio in the basement of the apartment building in Newark, New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and mathematician Glen Shafer.

What did you find most challenging about going back to school in your 60s?

The biggest challenge was being, what I called “disappeared.” I became invisible, a person of little importance, the little old black lady.

It was very difficult for my art professors to see me as an individual, the person I was. And I didn’t realize until then how important it was for me to feel that I was being seen.

You had one professor tell you that you’d never be an artist. That must have been difficult to hear.

I knew at the time that it was untrue. That was really clear. On the other hand, really deep in my heart, there was this leering pathetic self-doubt.

How did you deal with that?

One advantage of being in the academic world for so long was that I knew a lot of people and some of them had very good experience in the art world. I’d show my work to this alternative circle for “crits,” or critiques.

The most useful part of their message was ‘do your work, and a lot of it.’  I needed to get deeper into my own work. If I were teaching art, that’s what I would tell my students. Don’t stop at the first or second or third version of what you’re working on. Keep going.

You’ve said you never felt comfortable in graduate school. What kept you from quitting?

I have supportive friends and a very supportive husband and that really helped. I couldn’t have done this without other people. In a way, what got me through was the gift of age. I’ve come to have a really strong ego. And by that I mean I’m not hungry for approval from other people.

Still, I felt off balance after art school. It’s taken me a while to get enough distance that I can look back and say the experience was worth the discomfort and that it was the only way I could have gotten to where I am now. After all, I did want all the skills that come with a rigorous art education.  And that required having to think hard, having to spend hour after hour, week after week, month after month making art. I think if I hadn’t been in a degree program, I would not have worked as intensely, and for me working intensely is my life’s blood.

What would you say to someone in their 50s, 60s or beyond who thinks they might be ready to follow your example and pursue a longtime passion? 

The first thing I’d say is be realistic. By that, I'm not suggesting you imagine all the terrible things that could happen. Rather I’m saying, if you have a chronic disease, if you have elderly parents or children that you’re taking care of, that needs to be factored into your plans.  So instead of being starry-eyed, embrace the ways you could try something new. It might mean taking classes at a community college or going to college part time.

My second piece of advice is don’t see yourself through other people’s eyes. If you’re over 28 in art school or pushing 40 in a youth-obsessed culture, what’s reflected back at you can leave you feeling discouraged or ignored. However, if you see yourself through your own eyes, or those or your best friend or a loving partner, you’re much more likely to perceive both your strengths as well as your weaknesses, and that’s a good place to start.

Photo Credit: John Emerson

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