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Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over

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How are women, and artists, "seen" and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that "you will never be an Artist"—who defines "an Artist," and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of be How are women, and artists, "seen" and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that "you will never be an Artist"—who defines "an Artist," 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 represents an ongoing exploration of such questions, one that ultimately honors curiosity, openness, and joy—the joy of embracing creativity, dreams, the importance of hard work, and the stubborn determination of your own value. Nell Irvin Painter's journey is filled with surprises, even as she brings to bear the incisiveness of her insights from two careers, which combine in new ways even as they take very different approaches—one searching for facts and cohesion, the other seeking the opposite. She travels from her beloved Newark to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design; finds meaning in the artists she loves, such as Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, or Maira Kalman, even as she comes to understand how they are undervalued; and struggles with the ever-changing balance between the pursuit of art and the inevitable, sometimes painful demands of a life fully lived.


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How are women, and artists, "seen" and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that "you will never be an Artist"—who defines "an Artist," and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of be How are women, and artists, "seen" and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that "you will never be an Artist"—who defines "an Artist," 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 represents an ongoing exploration of such questions, one that ultimately honors curiosity, openness, and joy—the joy of embracing creativity, dreams, the importance of hard work, and the stubborn determination of your own value. Nell Irvin Painter's journey is filled with surprises, even as she brings to bear the incisiveness of her insights from two careers, which combine in new ways even as they take very different approaches—one searching for facts and cohesion, the other seeking the opposite. She travels from her beloved Newark to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design; finds meaning in the artists she loves, such as Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, or Maira Kalman, even as she comes to understand how they are undervalued; and struggles with the ever-changing balance between the pursuit of art and the inevitable, sometimes painful demands of a life fully lived.

30 review for Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over

  1. 4 out of 5

    Julie Ehlers

    There are many things to love about Old in Art School. The whole idea of someone going art school at the age of 64 is amazing, and Painter definitely provides a detailed sense of the experience for those of us who've never been (nor, in fact, even know someone who's been). Sadly, I believe her that art school is just as sexist, racist, ageist, and wedded to arbitrary trends as she describes here; why would it be different from the rest of the world?!? But as Painter tried to figure out her place There are many things to love about Old in Art School. The whole idea of someone going art school at the age of 64 is amazing, and Painter definitely provides a detailed sense of the experience for those of us who've never been (nor, in fact, even know someone who's been). Sadly, I believe her that art school is just as sexist, racist, ageist, and wedded to arbitrary trends as she describes here; why would it be different from the rest of the world?!? But as Painter tried to figure out her place in this world, her thought process and creative process were fascinating to me and satisfying to read about. Weirdly, I also really loved her portrait of New Jersey. Here in Philadelphia we obviously have a close, sibling-like relationship with New Jersey, but I've rarely been across the bridge (why would I? I mean really), so it was great to be immersed in it along with someone who very clearly loves it. It grounds the book in reality in a very vivid and effective way. Painter is a highly accomplished historian who's written several other books, but this is her first for a true general audience, and it kind of shows: Each chapter has a set theme, but within the chapters she tends to meander, as if she's sitting with you telling you stories. Ordinarily this sort of writing bugs me a bit, but I think Painter has earned the right to write this way. She's been around a while and she has a lot of experience, insight, and wisdom to share. She does this with humor and verve, and I was more than happy to give her my full attention.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    This one took a while—in addition to her storyline, Painter offers up a lot of interesting digressions about the art world and art world politics, so the narrative isn't always straightforwardly propulsive. I found myself—and this is a good thing—stopping to look up artists she mentioned, for one thing. Plus she has a quirky writing style that pushes back as much as it pulls you in. But it works, and I ended up liking this very much. The voice is a surprise at first, but it’s as unique as her ar This one took a while—in addition to her storyline, Painter offers up a lot of interesting digressions about the art world and art world politics, so the narrative isn't always straightforwardly propulsive. I found myself—and this is a good thing—stopping to look up artists she mentioned, for one thing. Plus she has a quirky writing style that pushes back as much as it pulls you in. But it works, and I ended up liking this very much. The voice is a surprise at first, but it’s as unique as her art, and communicates her heart and mind as effectively. 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Paula Pergament

    Nell Painter and I have lived parallel lives. The events and feeling she describes regarding her retirement, return to school, change of careers, and managing elderly parents are things I have experienced. Especially poignant are her descriptions of being treated as an older woman and not being seen or valued for the expertise she gained as a historian. I related to her feelings of inadequacy and the lack of acceptance she felt from the younger students she encountered in school It's hard to wri Nell Painter and I have lived parallel lives. The events and feeling she describes regarding her retirement, return to school, change of careers, and managing elderly parents are things I have experienced. Especially poignant are her descriptions of being treated as an older woman and not being seen or valued for the expertise she gained as a historian. I related to her feelings of inadequacy and the lack of acceptance she felt from the younger students she encountered in school It's hard to write about things that are considered mundane, such as the act of commuting to classes, but Dr. Painter's writing makes the reader feel as though they are on an adventure with her.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Nell Painter didn't give me what I was looking for. I expected a smoother ride -- gentle acceptance, a coherent story. But instead Painter shows her brain raw -- from elation to anger to irritation, to contentment ... and finally to an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. This is a retired eminent professor willing to reveal her cussing interior monologue as she accomplishes what many advised her not to do. I learned: some art terms -- polypropylene paper, formalism artists to explore -- Amy Si Nell Painter didn't give me what I was looking for. I expected a smoother ride -- gentle acceptance, a coherent story. But instead Painter shows her brain raw -- from elation to anger to irritation, to contentment ... and finally to an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. This is a retired eminent professor willing to reveal her cussing interior monologue as she accomplishes what many advised her not to do. I learned: some art terms -- polypropylene paper, formalism artists to explore -- Amy Sillman, Dana Schutz, Jackie Gendel techniques -- collograph, transcription I also learned: Be serious. Make lots of work. Don't ever stop. ... and I learned I don't want to go to art school.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    Didn’t finish after reading this passage. Page 74: (about a fellow student) “Soft little Kerry painted pretty horses. I shouldn’t call her ‘fat.’ My good feminist friends have slapped my hands over my use of that word, but my disdain for her painting sees her in just so judgmental a way.” Yeah, you really shouldn’t. You don’t like someone’s art so you call them names?

  6. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    I learned more from than this book than I actually enjoyed reading it. I learned about some amazing artists I was ashamed I hadn't heard more of. Sometimes I thought this book was written for a certain audience - mainly people who are familiar with art school and academia. Sometimes I decided it wasn't. Ultimately I feel this is a greatly important book because it challenged me in many ways. Nell Irvin Painter is an incredible, talented and resilient woman and we need more voices like hers.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lydia

    I think the value of this book, is Irwin Painter’s ability to lash out eloquently at those schools, art schools or not, who don’t treat the serious older student as “worthy.” In this case, Irwin Painter is a Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton. She is black. She is 70 years old. She weighs 170+ pounds. She wishes to go to Yale School of Art and receive her MFA. She wants to be “An Artist.” She loves words; her books have been lauded by the New York Times Book Review. But one serious probl I think the value of this book, is Irwin Painter’s ability to lash out eloquently at those schools, art schools or not, who don’t treat the serious older student as “worthy.” In this case, Irwin Painter is a Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton. She is black. She is 70 years old. She weighs 170+ pounds. She wishes to go to Yale School of Art and receive her MFA. She wants to be “An Artist.” She loves words; her books have been lauded by the New York Times Book Review. But one serious problem: She can’t draw; she can’t paint. She has determination. Her parents are dying in Oakland. Her husband is helpful. In her case, I don’t know if it is a matter of completing her 10,000 hours before she applies for her MFA, but Yale rejects her. The professors at RISD despise her. One professor says “you can’t draw, you can’t paint” repeatedly. One tells her she will never be “An Artist.” She tries to balance many plates and emotions while also painting. She is the only RISD Painting MFA graduate that year to receive a degree without honors. When the art world is turned upside down, and no one really knows what art is, then what is important? And then what are schools for? Are they to educate the young, and allow only them to benefit and grow? And what is Irwin Painter’s future? Older women have been lauded by the art world in their eighties but usually only after they have made art for 60 years. Irwin Painter explores this from every angle. She is right about the injustice, if justice means to be respected. I have felt some of this too when taking architecture classes. She includes pictures of her work in the book. Her work and her website make me cringe. Do something Interesting! What do you want to do? It is the age-old question. Can the attitudes be improved? Yes. I’m glad she wrote this book, and I hope she finds answers for herself and others who follow her lead.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    I don’t know why I thought I’d like this book. I’m not really an art person. I don’t really “get” “art.” I think the second act aspect is really what interested me and then I actually started reading it and realized it was actually about art. As soon as I started it I didn’t really enjoy it but I wanted to give it a fair chance, but also it’s really heavy and unwieldy to read on the train and I quickly realized I don’t really care enough about art to suffer it. When she gleefully described some I don’t know why I thought I’d like this book. I’m not really an art person. I don’t really “get” “art.” I think the second act aspect is really what interested me and then I actually started reading it and realized it was actually about art. As soon as I started it I didn’t really enjoy it but I wanted to give it a fair chance, but also it’s really heavy and unwieldy to read on the train and I quickly realized I don’t really care enough about art to suffer it. When she gleefully described some kid drumming on a train on her commute and from my own commute I was thinking I would have stabbed that kid, I became increasingly sure she is not for me. Once I decided to abandon the book it became even more insufferable to read. There were also pictures of her art sprinkled throughout and I didn’t like any of it. It’s chronological so I flipped to the back in case it gets better. It does not. TLDR: I need to stay in my lane.

  9. 5 out of 5

    LeAnn Locher

    I'm at 50% read and I'm abandoning reading this book. So disappointed. What began as a cheerleader to yeah! a voice for women! yeah! a voice for women of color! yeah! a voice for artists at all ages! became a whimper of sadness that it does not include a voice for women of size. Sigh. So. Very. Discouraging. I just can't get beyond the author's narrow view of what makes an artist. Early on in the book she specifically calls out a fellow artist as fat, and whose art cannot be taken as serious. An I'm at 50% read and I'm abandoning reading this book. So disappointed. What began as a cheerleader to yeah! a voice for women! yeah! a voice for women of color! yeah! a voice for artists at all ages! became a whimper of sadness that it does not include a voice for women of size. Sigh. So. Very. Discouraging. I just can't get beyond the author's narrow view of what makes an artist. Early on in the book she specifically calls out a fellow artist as fat, and whose art cannot be taken as serious. And then continues that people who are fat cannot be artists. She even points out this is at concern of fellow feminists. I hear this, and yet I continue on. And yet, I can't continue. Really? I'm so excited about so many things about this voice. It's completely inauthentic. Not inclusive. Snooty. And that which I specifically work to separate myself from. I'm shocked to write this. And yet, I was shocked to read her anti-fat narrative.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Naomi

    Although I could empathize with the author's plight, her unrealistic expectations became tedious and her entitled attitude annoying. She somehow assumed that her brilliant career as an academic should have translated into automatic respect in a totally different field - as if a prize winning chemist took a musical theatre course and expected to be hired by the Met. I know academia encourages tunnel vision, and Ivy League membership can foster a superiority complex but - how could she have such a Although I could empathize with the author's plight, her unrealistic expectations became tedious and her entitled attitude annoying. She somehow assumed that her brilliant career as an academic should have translated into automatic respect in a totally different field - as if a prize winning chemist took a musical theatre course and expected to be hired by the Met. I know academia encourages tunnel vision, and Ivy League membership can foster a superiority complex but - how could she have such a huge lack of insight about herself? She should have quit while she was ahead (after her BFA) and started painting, instead of plowing resentfully through a RISD MFA for its prestige value, and then writing a book complaining about it. She would have been happier and saved us all a lot of exasperation. On the other hand, maybe her journey was never about art making at all.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alyson Hagy

    This was the very right book for me at the very right time. I'm not changing my career or field, but I am of the age where I have (always) far more questions about art and the practice of art than I do answers. Painter's fascinating narrative of how she went back to painting (and the visual arts) after becoming one of the finest American historians in the world got under my skin...in a good way. The book is no-nonsense and idiosyncratic. It includes reproductions of Painter's art. It doesn't rom This was the very right book for me at the very right time. I'm not changing my career or field, but I am of the age where I have (always) far more questions about art and the practice of art than I do answers. Painter's fascinating narrative of how she went back to painting (and the visual arts) after becoming one of the finest American historians in the world got under my skin...in a good way. The book is no-nonsense and idiosyncratic. It includes reproductions of Painter's art. It doesn't romanticize the creative life. It asks hard questions about age, gender, race, talent, and the value of hard work. It's given me, at least, much to think about--especially when it comes to resilience and the role of "teachers" in American graduate schools. And I am in awe of Nell Painter.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Abbi

    I can't recall where I came across this memoir but the synopsis of it compelled me to read it. Honestly, before I had even reached the 100-page mark, I would've given this book 3 stars. At that point, I felt that the author was getting caught up in the thick of telling us about Art History instead of her journey going to Art School in her 60s. But thankfully, the story got better, so much so that I began to appreciate her references to art history, specifically Black art and female artists. Howe I can't recall where I came across this memoir but the synopsis of it compelled me to read it. Honestly, before I had even reached the 100-page mark, I would've given this book 3 stars. At that point, I felt that the author was getting caught up in the thick of telling us about Art History instead of her journey going to Art School in her 60s. But thankfully, the story got better, so much so that I began to appreciate her references to art history, specifically Black art and female artists. However, if you're not even remotely interested in history then you might hate this book because Nell Painter can't help talking about it; mostly because she is also a historian.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    At first I wasn’t taken with Painter’s memoir, it felt like she was taking too much time establishing her credentials in the world of history and academia. I am chagrined that I felt that way. As a historian, Painter is a fully realized top dog. Quiting that world at 64 to go to art school rendered her insignificant, a very difficult proposition for such an accomplished woman. There are so many stereotypes she must climb over, being old, being a woman, being financially stable and being too 20th At first I wasn’t taken with Painter’s memoir, it felt like she was taking too much time establishing her credentials in the world of history and academia. I am chagrined that I felt that way. As a historian, Painter is a fully realized top dog. Quiting that world at 64 to go to art school rendered her insignificant, a very difficult proposition for such an accomplished woman. There are so many stereotypes she must climb over, being old, being a woman, being financially stable and being too 20th century. Bravo for her battles with these obstacles. I leave you with my favorite sentence....” The deaf graphite rattle of leaves in the wind.”

  14. 4 out of 5

    Maya Rock

    Thoroughly enjoyed I really enjoyed this book. It encompasses so much, it’s hard to describe. I learned so much about art and RISD and appreciated the author’s analyses of her own artistic weaknesses and strengths; her relationships with her peers; her handling of her elderly parents. It felt very honest. I also liked her can-do spirit. I also think she is a talented writer. She is also pretty self aware, which helps, and I thought her climactic advice about only seeing oneself through ones eyes Thoroughly enjoyed I really enjoyed this book. It encompasses so much, it’s hard to describe. I learned so much about art and RISD and appreciated the author’s analyses of her own artistic weaknesses and strengths; her relationships with her peers; her handling of her elderly parents. It felt very honest. I also liked her can-do spirit. I also think she is a talented writer. She is also pretty self aware, which helps, and I thought her climactic advice about only seeing oneself through ones eyes was pretty good.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Joan

    Fascinating woman who has accomplished quite a lot. Dr. Painter is a noted historian. Then in her 60s returned to school to obtain yet another advanced degree, this time an MFA. Look carefully at the cover. At a book signing she indicated its a collage of cut up pages from her book, The History of White People.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Xtine

    For those who are looking for a second career, and are thinking about going back school —especially art school, or other undergraduate program that is unrelated to your current field of expertise — I highly recommend this book. I shared many of Painter's thoughts & experiences, and so in many respects, I think it is accurate reflection of what one could expect. As someone who was also old in art school (in my 40s, a whole generation younger than when Painter was when she went back, but still For those who are looking for a second career, and are thinking about going back school —especially art school, or other undergraduate program that is unrelated to your current field of expertise — I highly recommend this book. I shared many of Painter's thoughts & experiences, and so in many respects, I think it is accurate reflection of what one could expect. As someone who was also old in art school (in my 40s, a whole generation younger than when Painter was when she went back, but still older than some of my classmate’s parents), I enjoyed hearing her experience, and seeing so many similarities, both in life and in school, to my own. In particular, I thought her musings on who has a right to take up space & make art, and the privilege of being in that position, echoed many of my own thoughts. I don't share all her thoughts on art, but I appreciated hearing her perspective. Where I went would not be considered top-tier like RISD, so it is fun to hear what that is like and the attitudes of people in the fine arts program there. (One answer: kinda snobby towards design / illustration, except when they become acceptable to the New York art world: Warhol, Maira Kalman, Ben Schahn, who she calls commercial artists instead of illustrators, a term, profession, and style for which she showed a lot of disdain. I studied illustration, so thought that was particularly funny.) Her perspective on African American art & its place in history was great, especially given her expertise. I will definitely look up the art and artists she mentioned, and her book Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. I thought it was charmingly naive that someone would leave a world where they did not feel their work was adequately appreciated to go to the *art world* -- a field that is terribly subjective, and notoriously connections-based. The ending did make me happy for her — glad she has found a happy community. I read several reviews here that found her expounding on her success as a historian as bragging, and her annoyance over her lack of immediate success in school as a sign of entitlement. I read it differently, but on re-reading I see where that comes from. I think if written with more candor, and less like an omniscient historian (“my lying 20th century eyes”), these parts could have shown what I think she was trying to get across, or at least how I read it: No matter what your success you have had in life, *literally zero* of that will help you in art school, at least in technique. It sounds obvious, but maybe you have to go through it for it to really sink in. I respect Painter, someone whose success in her field few can match, for putting herself in that position. I thought she glossed over, or wasn't direct / clear enough, what must have been an extremely humbling experience. Painter did have an art background, so it is not as though she was starting at the very beginning, but I appreciated her humility in putting herself in a position where she had so much to learn; where she was criticized and found wanting; where was she unfavorably compared to people so much younger than herself; where she opened herself up to seeing things a new way (tho clearly still not perfect in this -- e.g. fat-phobic comments mentioned in other reviews); and the willingness to do the hard work (and it is hard!) a BFA entails. On a mundane note - I was also really impressed with how casually she discussed her commute — lugging art supplies on transit is no joke! One thing I was curious about -- I wondered how her own treatment of undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton compared to her experience as a student. Some of her gripes -- favoritism, unequal access to opportunities, jerks generally -- seem hardly unique to art school. I just wondered if her experience as a student made her reflect on education / academic mentoring generally in any way.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jim Leckband

    After many years of a very successful career in one discipline, it is perhaps understandable to have some pride in your accomplishments. But damn, I got tired of "how great I am". That being said, Painter does have the proper humility of learning a new discipline. A beginning artist has to develop their eye as much as their hand. You can only get better if you have the humility to look at your work and see that it can get better (if not necessarily how - that is where good teachers and fellow art After many years of a very successful career in one discipline, it is perhaps understandable to have some pride in your accomplishments. But damn, I got tired of "how great I am". That being said, Painter does have the proper humility of learning a new discipline. A beginning artist has to develop their eye as much as their hand. You can only get better if you have the humility to look at your work and see that it can get better (if not necessarily how - that is where good teachers and fellow artists can help). I have seen students that sadly will have a hard time progressing because they don't have that humility. I believe that is one factor in Painter's progress and why she was accepted to RISD and other later opportunities. I did have a personal reason for reading this. I was kinda in the same boat as Painter. During my graduate school time studying for my Ph.D. in physics, I got the art bug - taking drawing classes when I could. With encouragement from my teachers, I applied to grad school in drawing/painting. So I was in a similar situation as Painter - but only in terms of an academic "outsider" going into art. I was not an older female, I was a white male the same age as my cohorts. Much of what she relates of her time in art school is spot on - and an artist who has spent their undergrad time as an art major and identified as an artist for their whole life might not pick up on some things. It is definitely cliquey, in-fashions and in-styles rule, and teachers can be just as incompetent and opinionated as anywhere else. However, one thing I didn't experience that Painter got from a couple of sources is the "You can never be an artist" thing. Overwhelmingly I always had support from fellow students and teachers. I could be ungracious and say that my work was better than hers, but I think that she just got some bad apples or they had some jealousy. Real artists generally don't play that game. Yes, we make judgements - it is part of the game, but it is usually not at the personal level when someone is still finding their voice. And that is the key that makes an artist - the personal voice. When an artist is just beginning they look and become inspired by the art that they love. And those images become the standard that the beginner student tries to emulate. And fail at of course. What art school does is try to keep that inspiration while exposing the artist to all the different ways of making and looking at art. Because it is rare that an artist's mature and singular voice is totally aligned with their initial passions. For instance my mature art has little to do with Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism - but I wouldn't have gotten there without them. Painter at the beginning doesn't know much about this "voice". Who does? This is the delicate and personal part of art making. Painter walks us through the undergrad toil that she had to do to strengthen her eye and hands - while still trying to be the kind of an artist she has imposed on herself. I loved reading when in grad school she finally found her voice - it seems like it came out of nowhere. But it was always there. When I look at my early student drawings. They are clumsy - but I see where this or that of my mature style came from. And what we see of Painter's work is the same way. As a whole this is great portrait of an artist as they were becoming one. I do wish that it didn't have so much of her personal memoir aspects of it - her parental saga was a little too personal to me, and the academic historian aspect was a little too gratuitous. We got it that Painter was very, very, very successful in history - methinks she braggeth too much.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    I ate this up. It doesn't hurt that I'm trying to challenge myself with new endeavors as I get closer to my 7th decade. Painter is a notable, award winning, genius historian but she goes back to the beginning for BFA and MFA in Fine Arts at the same time that she is caring for elderly parents on the other side of the country. The book reads like a journal - intimate, angry, funny. It's a ride you can't help but enjoy. She also has a lot to say about race and art school - all of it fascinating an I ate this up. It doesn't hurt that I'm trying to challenge myself with new endeavors as I get closer to my 7th decade. Painter is a notable, award winning, genius historian but she goes back to the beginning for BFA and MFA in Fine Arts at the same time that she is caring for elderly parents on the other side of the country. The book reads like a journal - intimate, angry, funny. It's a ride you can't help but enjoy. She also has a lot to say about race and art school - all of it fascinating and she sent me to internet numerous times to look up artists I wasn't familiar with. Marvelous book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Dana

    I'm struggling a bit to decide what I thought of this book. I do love the idea that at 64, renowned historian Nell Painter decided to switch gears and go to art school. I made a career change in my 30s/40s--although I wasn't famous in my previous one and didn't tackle something quite as challenging--so I was cheering her on. I learned that art school is hard, and that's it's filled with ageism, sexism, and racism just like so many other institutions. The book would get bogged down in description I'm struggling a bit to decide what I thought of this book. I do love the idea that at 64, renowned historian Nell Painter decided to switch gears and go to art school. I made a career change in my 30s/40s--although I wasn't famous in my previous one and didn't tackle something quite as challenging--so I was cheering her on. I learned that art school is hard, and that's it's filled with ageism, sexism, and racism just like so many other institutions. The book would get bogged down in descriptions of art techniques or artists and I'd get kind of irritated, but then Painter would make a great point about race or gender or age or politics that would bring me back. She also delves into things happening with her family along the way, which she ties up nicely in the end. The book meanders, which surprised me coming from someone who's written many books--the fact that this is the first for a general audience shows. But I enjoyed her storytelling and her humor, wisdom, and insight. The Audible audiobook comes with a download of the art that I missed by not having the actual book, which was a nice touch.

  20. 4 out of 5

    gnarlyhiker

    a most excellent collage of a memoir with a spattering of art history. a great summer read, too. recommend interview: www.historyworkshop.org.uk/tag/nell-p... good luck

  21. 4 out of 5

    SukiG

    I did not want this book to end. While it did not turn out to be the blazing tell-all about RISD that I had hoped, what I got by reading it was a total gift. Nell Painter's insight into what it means to be a woman, what it means to embrace your passions later in life, and what it means to be an outsider in the art world (what she calls an artist's Artist) were touching and enlightening. It takes an incredible amount of courage to leave the Ivory Tower, let alone leave it for such uncertainty. I I did not want this book to end. While it did not turn out to be the blazing tell-all about RISD that I had hoped, what I got by reading it was a total gift. Nell Painter's insight into what it means to be a woman, what it means to embrace your passions later in life, and what it means to be an outsider in the art world (what she calls an artist's Artist) were touching and enlightening. It takes an incredible amount of courage to leave the Ivory Tower, let alone leave it for such uncertainty. I also greatly appreciated Nell's personal struggles with her aging parents and her grief processes. This is an extremely rich book. She is a Painter indeed.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jillian

    This was one of the most enjoyable books I've read in years. I learned about artists I've never heard of, I got an insider's look at art school, and I learned a bit about how racism and the art world intersect. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in art, creating art, or thinking about art school.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mimi

    wonderful memoir, loved the dispiriting feelings after Crits at RISD, having gone to art school myself, I have empathy. It was extraordinary of her, a black woman of 64 and already an eminent historian to decide to change careers, highly admirable. a 3.8. My one criticism is the reproductions of her paintings, which there are many in the book, are so small that I couldn't really envision them.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Melody Daggerhart

    Notes of Interest: The instant I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. It’s relative to my own “starting over” circumstances and desire to return to art education, alongside my writing education and career. I was curious to know the thoughts of someone else who did it. Did she like the experience? Was it difficult? What did she bring to the table? And what did she walk away with? These were just some of the questions that compelled me. I was not disappointed. She answered those questions and off Notes of Interest: The instant I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. It’s relative to my own “starting over” circumstances and desire to return to art education, alongside my writing education and career. I was curious to know the thoughts of someone else who did it. Did she like the experience? Was it difficult? What did she bring to the table? And what did she walk away with? These were just some of the questions that compelled me. I was not disappointed. She answered those questions and offered so much more, bringing in her experiences with losing her aging parents, dealing with being alone among students younger than herself, confessing self-doubts that plague every creative mind, and applying her previous profession in history and social studies into her critiques and observations in the art community. It was an added bonus that she frequently reflected on her situation through the lens as a woman and as a black woman, too. What could have made it better for me: My only major complaint about this book is its lack of quotation marks setting off direct quotes; drove me bonkers! Paragraphs were used to denote direct quotes throughout the book, but paragraphs can’t take the place of setting apart direct speech. So, those passages were often difficult to read and required re-reading some passages. There were other grammar rules dismissed for her writing style, and I’m decidedly “old school” when it comes to using correct punctuation, capitalization, and whatever else it takes to clarify writing for the reader. So frequently stylized text made me feel more like I was reading an e e cummings poem. (Yeah … something like that.) While non-standard grammar and stylized text is often used and accepted in poetry, in longer formats it feels jarring and distracts from context. What I liked about it: Pretty much everything else about this book was interesting, enlightening, or entertaining. It has a definite academic/social awareness slant due to her background, but the narrative gluing heavier topics together is very down-to-earth, creating a nice balance and flow. The first and most obvious topic she tackles is in the title: old age. “How old are you?” people bluntly asked her from her first day of class, onward. Some of her answers included, “But now what I took as me seemed almost inconsequential as my essence shriveled to my age. This was something new.” … “There is so much more to me than age. And that so much more got me to art school in the first place. … Why wouldn’t I be able to go to art school at sixty-four? Being able to go to art school at sixty-four was one thing. Why I would want to go to art school is another. Answer: The pursuit of pleasure. Concentrating on what I could see gave me intense pleasure, and seeing what I could make with my own hand and according to my own eye was even more satisfying. Mark making and mixing and applying color contented me deeply, just the very process of putting line on paper, brush on canvas. Art stopped time. Art exiled hunger. Art held off fatigue for what would have been hours as though hours hadn’t really passed. Pleasure. Satisfaction. Contentment.” … “My gray hair frees me to be an older woman with an older woman’s release from the ceaseless, expensive, time-consuming, and anxiety-inducing demands of sex-appeal. Vanity I have with me still, but I would not try to camouflage or to deny my age, even for art school.” … “Fictions. Visual fictions. I want to make art. Seriously. And to make serious art unfettered from the mandate that I address larger truths.” And yet, she does address those larger truths, beautifully. Peppered throughout the entire book are discussions on black history, feminist history, art history, and the interplay of those three elements culturally. Take her honesty in discussing “the black body” being a minefield, as an example. When challenged to draw self-portraits, she wondered, do you draw it as it is, or reshape it to the standards of white American beauty? Dark skin, natural hair, thick lips … these traits are more likely to be labeled as socially taboo stereotypes. Did she want her art to present truth? Or did she want her art to conform to a very narrow, social scope of what it means to be beautiful? She asked the same questions of age and other imperfections. This was a very powerful sentiment that I had not considered before, even though I have balked as well when confronted with self-portrait assignments. They reveal a lot about our own insecurities if we sit outside of the mold of what is socially acceptable as beautiful enough to be a work of Art. Speaking of other such prejudices in the art world, she said, “This, beside the prevailing — and continuing — assumption that white-male work is raceless and genderless and innocent of ideological content. Which it isn’t. Of course, much of the prejudice against black and women artists such as I was on my way to becoming was merely because they — we — were and are black artists in a racist culture and female artists in a sexist world.” Digging backwards into art movements throughout history and successful artists of the ages, she uses her awareness of these larger, social truths to discuss what it means to be “An Artist artist” and how and why she uses social content in her own works. She shares details about assignments which improved her creativity and turned into life lessons. In one, she was instructed to tape paper on the wall and fill it with a charcoal drawing. When she finished, she was told to rub it out with a chamois. “Owwww!! All that work for nothing!” Her teacher then told her to draw it again. “Draw. Sweat. Fill up the paper. Rub it out. Erase it again? Yes.” Draw it again, smaller. Erase. Draw from a different angle. Erase. Draw, draw, draw again. … “You can erase what you draw, even if you’ve spent a long time drawing and sweating over it. You can throw away what you paint and, as I learned to do later, cut it up and incorporate it into a new painting. A lesson to take straight to heart, and not only in art making.” Another assignment involved doing 100 drawings — a daunting number considering everything else she was juggling at the time. But she persisted because she believed education and hard work could trump talent, “… repetition is how art finds its way.” She stresses there is no substitute for practice — lots of it. Though she admits it was difficult to let go of logic and reason to just create. “I knew for certain historians’ attachment to scientific truth was cramping my painting hand and misleading my eye.” There were times when she lamented the differences between “old school” art school and today’s 21st-century eyes. “Accidents are to be courted, not cleaned up.” (I’ve heard similar comments in my own art classes from teachers, and while it might change the quality of the art in some cases, I think it allows for a wider spectrum on the purpose of art.) She mentions 20th century art being learned by mimetic drawing of the masters, until the 1960’s when conceptualization became more important than product, so process was dematerializing art as we once knew it. Yet for one drawing class, she said the teacher, “… started us drawing bones, for bones contain a multitude of curves, surfaces, textures. Then she moved us on to human models. First, just one, then two in challenging compositions.” Later they moved on to ink and having a lesson on pentimento that stayed with her (leaving traces of the original drawing under the painting like a shadow presence). THEN they did paintings based on art history, but re-imagined from different angles or before/after the original painting’s scene. (I still have my end-of-semester assignment of copying a master’s work hanging on my wall — a sketch in pencil of a John Audubon bird painting. So, I can relate to her appreciation of these old-fashioned learning methods, no matter how old they get. Many times you do learn better by dismantling and copying what the masters did … and not just in art.) Current art culture doesn’t escape her commentary, either. “As an artist, you know, you have to look good, starting with the raw material of your body. You can’t be taken seriously in The Art World unless you’re slender, or at least not fat.” … “Artists don’t get dressed; they costume themselves in an artist-outfit, an undertaking judiciously arranged for the sprezzatura, for apparently insouciant style. … Art students buy their clothes from Goodwill. Or they wear expensive designer things that look like they came from Goodwill …” She speaks of how alone she was amid this subculture and how tired she grew of eating alone, sitting alone, doing everything alone, because she was so different from everyone else. She speaks honestly of the struggles with her aging mother and father, frequently using paint colors to describe landscapes during her travels to care for them during emergencies. Their deaths impacted her studies and the quality of her work, but she persisted even then as much as she could. She talks honestly about the collapse of her self-confidence, under the scrutiny of her peers as an old woman and under the scrutiny of art critiques. “Like artists the world over, my bayoneted, hand-to-hand struggle against insecurity and for self-confidence never ends.” But she said, “In New Haven I heard what I needed to hear, essential advice every art student needs to hear; Keep on. Keep making art. Keep making your art.” She discusses what’s necessary to be taken seriously as an artist today, and it’s more than an MFA or teaching in a university because those don’t pay the bills. “SO WHO THE hell is An Artist?” She goes on to say one rule for An Artist is to never doubt yourself or your work or “They” will use it against you. She discusses how some An Artists aren’t good enough for others. And concludes, “Clearly there were hundreds, thousands of ways to make art and to be An Artist.” But she advises another artist that she “… absolutely must not see herself through other people’s eyes.” … “You are an artist in the way you are your race.” And one final topic I found interesting was how art school tried to teach her that real artists do not make books. Illustration (art that tells a story or is used to clarify meaning) is often looked down upon as not being real art. Yet she keeps coming back to combinations of art and words, and one of her favourite forms of art uses scraps of text to add context to the visual. For me, as a reader, writer, and illustrator, I enjoyed hearing from someone else who likes combining art and books. Recommendation: There were so many things about this book that make it feel relevant, from age and aging parents to the struggles with self-confidence and self-improvement. But even if that was not the case, this book is full of thoughtful reflection on what it takes to create art, appreciate art, and make space in art history for non-mainstream representation (just as there is a need for more diverse representation in literature and pretty much all other aspects of modern culture). The author brings the reader into the discomfort and challenges of trying something new in the face of great obstacles and heartache, while also reflecting with pride on past accomplishments and perseverance toward her goals. Her observations are frank and thought-provoking. This book was an insightful delight to read. I recommend it for art students of all ages, particularly students who also have an interest in black history and/or feminist history. I think it would be interesting for anyone starting over in a new profession, learning a new skill, or needing a little encouragement on how to age gracefully and powerfully. I not only recommend this book, I will add the book she published while in art school, History of White People, to my future reading list because she spoke about how she incorporated what she learned from writing that book (which started with questioning the origins of the term “Caucasian” and learning that the skull of a sex slave became the defining skull of all white people) into one of her critical assignments. And the pairing of art and literature under that historic, faux-science kind of inspiration just seemed amazing. Ms. Painter, I stand in awe.

  25. 4 out of 5

    ND

    Entertained me but I got a bit tired of her...especially when she was bragging about her resume. I also didn't entirely understand why she stopped being an historian. But moving in places.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Enchanted Prose

    Inspirational at any age (New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, 2005 to present): When a leading historian in the United States writes she was “born to paint,” we understand her need for creativity. That still doesn’t explain why at 64 an endowed professor at Princeton with an extensive list of accomplishments, awards, and honors would give all that up to become “An Artist.” Yet that’s exactly what Nell Irvin Painter did. Why? For all the fascinating, artful, and enlightening aspects of Inspirational at any age (New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, 2005 to present): When a leading historian in the United States writes she was “born to paint,” we understand her need for creativity. That still doesn’t explain why at 64 an endowed professor at Princeton with an extensive list of accomplishments, awards, and honors would give all that up to become “An Artist.” Yet that’s exactly what Nell Irvin Painter did. Why? For all the fascinating, artful, and enlightening aspects of Painter’s terrific memoir, her answer is fairly straightforward: because “she wanted to.” The complete answer is a bit more complicated than that, but there’s great truth to the author’s inner passion and determination to lose herself in the “tactile sweetness” of the visual arts, quite different than her analytical career. Applying the same seriousness, curiosity, and discipline that led to her historian achievements, “intellectual sophistication” turned out to be a stinging obstacle the second time around. For Painter, “creative ambition” seemed to have no bearing on becoming “An Artist” in the “Art World” (as opposed to thriving quietly in the world of art.) The Art World translates into getting noticed at galleries and museums, causing collectors to crave your work. Getting noticed, her art teachers deemed, was something “you’re born with.” They told her she’d “never be an artist,” a stunning rebuke to someone whose seen the benefits of scholarship, hard work, practice, persistence. Here Painter’s deeply personal memoir expands philosophically, challenging “ontology or epistemology?” In this layman’s mind, likened to the Nature versus Nurture psychological dispute. “Who defines what constitutes “An Artist”? the author asks, examines, adjusts to, and strives for in defiance of the 21st century Art World, at odds with her “twentieth century eyes.” As you get to know Nell Painter through her intimate memoir, it becomes crystal-clear that dabbling on her own in the visual arts was not an option; jumping all in her only authentic choice. “After a lifetime of historical truth and political engagement with American society,” she became driven to express visually her perspectives on “the state of the world and about history” not just for the sheer joy of it but to be heard. It’s important to point out that Painter had a fantastic role model for reinventing herself: at 65, her mother, Dona Irvin, spent ten years researching and writing her first book (The Unsung Heart of Black America), and at 75 devoted another ten writing her memoir (Wish I Could Look That Good When I’m That Old: An Older African-American Speaks to All Women in All of America.) So the artist-striving historian plunges into art classes and art schools (and later residences) with remarkable youthful zest, mighty aspirations, a supportive husband (Glenn teaches at Rutgers University), and the means to do so. The visual arts was not an entirely foreign notion. In the '60s, the author lived in Ghana where she fell in love with colors: “a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheels.” Vibrant colors match her vibrant spirit, which is why her gray period at graduate arts school was so unsettling and compelling to the reader (see why below). The author’s parents moved to California, where she experimented with sculpture as an undergraduate anthropology major at Berkeley. Later, her love of drawing, “of really seeing what I was looking at,” finds its way into some of her seven lauded books on what it means to be black and white in America. These include: Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol; Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present; and The History of White People she finished while juggling the pressures of graduate art school – which she came to view as “man’s inhumanity to man” – at a wrenching emotional period when her mother was dying and her father was chronically, clinically depressed. Even before Painter left Princeton, she had a plan, taking two painting classes there. Followed by an intensive summer at the New York Studio School in Manhattan drawing and painting, a tiring commute (leaving her beloved home in the multi-cultural Ironbound district of Newark at 6am, returning at night). Yet this “marathon” delights and stirs her creative soul. Unlike her undergraduate and graduate art experiences, which were painfully humbling. At the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, a student bluntly asked how old she was. It was the first time Painter had thought of herself as old. She’d already spent a lifetime fighting two other labels: being black and a woman in America. Not seeing herself as old until then speaks volumes about how progressive those 20th century eyes are. Painter presses on. Rejected by her top graduate choice, Yale’s School of Art, she moved solo to Providence to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, her second preference. Here she soon found herself profoundly alone, marginalized and discriminated on account of age, sex, ethnicity, intellectualism, and purposefulness to incorporate “history history” into her art. Painter approached RISD with the same fire in her belly as ever, but over time the outrageous lack of respect for who she was as a human being, and a person of exceptional productivity and credentials, and of course her art wore her down. The historian-turned-artist does not mince words. Candidly and sharply, and sometimes profanely, she describes how badly RISD demoralized her. This shocks the reader, since we perceive Painter as wonderfully confident. “I was a star and a dud, simultaneously,” she asserts. We don’t agree. To us she’s a shining star whose starred memoir treats us to absorbing discussions on the concepts, techniques, materials, and historical contexts of Painter’s Artmaking, engaging us through colorful prose and images of her work that accentuate the 320+ pages. That’s a total of 95 pictures, provided in a List of Images Appendix. These pale in comparison to the whole body of the artist’s contemporary works. The range, conceptualism, and activism of these cutting-edge creations include: charcoal drawings, paintings, collages, silkscreen prints, woodcuts, lithographs, linoleum cuts, silhouettes, and something Painter landed on she calls “manual + digital:” “Using found images and digital manipulation, I reconfigure the past and revision myself through self-portraits,” relishing the “freedom to be totally self-centered,” exploring where she fits in the world. ... “Race the exhausting, existential reality of any black artist becoming known in America.” Race is never far from her bold compositions and focus, intensified by her conclusion that “the Art World is as racist as hell and unashamed of it.” All the more noteworthy then is the artist’s exuberance for everything involved in making art. From “the paper, the charcoal, the canvas, the setups, the model, the perspective, the shadows, the colors, the smell.” Everything except succumbing to caring about how others judged her work and looked down at her. When the “sacred” graduate art school “crits” failed to take her seriously, she eventually sought advice on the outside from art friends and colleagues, which buoyed her. Since you can’t take the historian out of the artist, Old in Art School is also an art history primer on artists Painter admires. Most are modern, abstract expressionists and black artists, but by no means all of them. Nell Irvin Painter’s art journey is an impressive uphill battle to be noticed. All you have to do is scroll through this website – http://www.nellpainter.com/art.html#beamerica – to appreciate how buzz worthy her artwork is. Just what the Art World is looking for! And she did it her way. Painter’s mother was her inspiration. Now she’s ours. Lorraine (EnchantedProse.com)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Zack Rearick

    Good audiobook, read by the author. Painter is eminently interesting, a prominent historian turned "old" student and artist. She focuses mostly on her experience in art school and the challenge of juggling a successful career while striving toward another. I also appreciated her thoughts on navigating the art world as black and woman, caring for aging parents, and pushing through self doubt — who gets to be an artist? what is good enough — on her journey.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Krista Park

    Spectacular read. I will search out more of her books.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    (3.5 stars) I read this at work for professional development. It was enjoyable but the heavy emphasis on art history and making was tough for me to follow without my eyes glazing over. I truly enjoyed her exploration of relationships with other artists and art students. As a current employee at RISD I can see the parallels between Painter's experience and the experiences of students currently attending art school. After reading particularly critical passages to a colleague, I mused, "maybe she'l (3.5 stars) I read this at work for professional development. It was enjoyable but the heavy emphasis on art history and making was tough for me to follow without my eyes glazing over. I truly enjoyed her exploration of relationships with other artists and art students. As a current employee at RISD I can see the parallels between Painter's experience and the experiences of students currently attending art school. After reading particularly critical passages to a colleague, I mused, "maybe she'll come do a reading?" I wonder if the university would ever let that happen. I would have liked to have learned a bit about her life after art school just because I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like for current POC RISD grads. It was fun to recognize some of the names of people I know and also have received support from. I'm glad I read this book.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    I give a book three chances before I add it to my DNF pile (barring something especially egregious). Admittedly, one of these is a personal irk, but OIAS did, in fact, use up its three chances: 1. Painter spends a great deal of time talking about how accomplished she is, how successful she was as a historian, etc. While this habit makes me uncomfortable as it's not something I personally like to do, I won't begrudge another person from expressing pride, especially a woman, where this is often dis I give a book three chances before I add it to my DNF pile (barring something especially egregious). Admittedly, one of these is a personal irk, but OIAS did, in fact, use up its three chances: 1. Painter spends a great deal of time talking about how accomplished she is, how successful she was as a historian, etc. While this habit makes me uncomfortable as it's not something I personally like to do, I won't begrudge another person from expressing pride, especially a woman, where this is often dismissed as arrogance and subsequently discouraged. It was Painter's ostensible shock and frustration that she was struggling with the switch to fine arts that really bothered me, as if she expected success in one field to automatically translate into success in another field. It's overly simplistic, and actually fairly disrespectful to the concept of being a working artist, as if it's so easy to be one, anyone could do it. 2. She describes a fellow student, whom she doesn't like, as "fat". She admits this is wrong to do, yet does it anyway. The perceived fatness of this other student is completely irrelevant to this book. It's unnecessary and immature. 3. This one is admittedly petty, but I was already so bothered by the first two points, this was just the last straw: I *cannot* stand it when people refer to their partners as "DH" for "Darling Husband". I don't know why it bothers me so much. But I. Can't. Stand. It. I was curious about this story because, frankly, my mother did something very similar: retired early to get a second master's in the History of Decorative Arts, and now she's a lace historian. I thought it would be cool to hear this story from another perspective. I was wrong.

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