Old In Art School: A Refreshing Portrait of What Coming-of-Age Can Look Like

Nell Painter, prominent historian and professor emeritus at Princeton, reveals in her new memoir, Old in Art School, her experience being an old black woman in art school.

The author recently spoke to The Root about her decision to change direction after a life filled with accomplishments and acclaim. She also highlights key themes her book identifies:

On the importance of a journey to self-acceptance: “In art school if you’re over 30, you’re old,” she says, adding that in academia, certain privileges are afforded with age. But in art school, the combination of her age and gender not only made her an anomaly—it rendered her invisible. But the book is less about the wounds inflicted over the journey than about the process of becoming an artist—of forging a new identity in the autumn of your life. Painter chooses to embrace the word “old” in her memoir.

On the importance of a journey to self-renewal: Throughout the memoir, she includes work from various periods of her time in art school. Among the most striking images she includes are a series of self-portraits. “One reason to make a lot of self-portraits is because I’m always with me,” Painter says, adding that she doesn’t have to worry about “insulting” herself when doing a self-portrait. “I see myself in many many different ways.” She leans into the specificity of her experiences—the reader learns, for example, about how she came to be a “process artist,” that is, where the creation of the art itself is as much a focus, if not more so, than the end product itself. She describes her methods and her particular struggles with different media. And Painter fully acknowledges the privilege of her position—apart from her sterling academic career, she also had a husband and a father who supported her financially during her time in art school. Having the time and the means to pursue an endeavor is a luxury that doesn’t escape her.

Learn more and read the full interview here.

Published: August 22, 2018