Old in Art School

Old in Art SchoolAt an event at East Bay Booksellers here in Oakland for Nell Painter’s new book, Old in Art School, a member of the audience asked why she felt the need to go for first a BFA and then an MFA in art, given that she was in her 60s at the time and had a distinguished career as an historian (she’s currently a professor emerita at Princeton).

Her answer: “Rigor.” She didn’t just want to paint; she wanted to do the hard work required to turn herself into an artist.

Since I’m a writer from the school of “we don’t need no stinking degrees,” I’m not sure I agree with her that art school is the only route to getting rigorous training. But I do understand the need for a combination of hard work, critique, and professional guidance that one can get in such programs.

She certainly went about her art career with the same determination and rigor she brought to her work as an historian. Her contributions to history are considerable.

I discovered Dr. Painter when I ran across her book The History of White People some years back. I loved it so much I reviewed it for the Cascadia Subduction Zone back in 2011. That review will appear in this space next week.

I knew from the publicity materials for that book that she was pursuing art, so when I came across Old in Art School while browsing in East Bay Booksellers, I picked it up immediately, read it, and came back for the event, which was an interview with Dr. Painter by Ishmael Reed.

Neither the book nor the event disappointed. This is a memoir of Dr. Painter’s experience at both Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, where she got her BFA, and then at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her MFA.

And the “old” in the title is explained in the first chapter of the book, “How Old Are You?” A very young fellow student asks her that question as she starts at Mason Gross and, because she is not one to lie about her age, she tells her, “64.” (The other student immediately grabs her phone to text her mother.)

64 when she begins. Older by far than the others. And while she is no longer teaching at Princeton, she is still finishing The History of White People, which came out to rave reviews in The New York Times after she started at RISD. Plus, like many people in their 60s, she has aging parents, and she is their only child. And while she lives in New Jersey, they live in Oakland — three thousand miles away.

Which is to say that not only did Dr. Painter set out on a serious art career at the age when most people decide to retire and, if they want to do something else, take up a mild hobby, but she did it while juggling life. While she had strong support from her husband, also a professor, anyone who has ever struggled with doing the work they want to do while dealing with the rest of life will appreciate her honest discussion of all those challenges.

Perhaps it is Dr. Painter’s background as an historian that makes her present this memoir in an honest fashion. She talks of her despair and her mistakes as well as of her successes, of the unfair barriers she ran into as well as the useful support she received.

The book includes many pictures of her art, art that intrigues me. I would love to see it in a gallery or museum on display at its actual size, but for now the best place to find it is on her website. It is challenging work, sometimes very political work, and I think as important in challenging ideas in art as some of her historical work was in challenging history.

If you are no longer young, but still feel that you have important work you want to do – need to do – this book is necessary reading. It will tell you that the path can be hard, but it will also tell you that it is possible to do the things you want to do. Ignore the barriers society and others want to put in your way. Take support where it is given.

You don’t have to live somebody else’s idea of old age. Invent your own.

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Old in Art School — 5 Comments

  1. Heh heh—as our very dear Ursula once wrote: “I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.”

    I used to be a member of the “we don’t need no stinking degrees” camp too, but I concede that might have been a front to cover my inner shame and disappointment at having had to withdraw from university on account of too much “life” intruding on my learning space at the time.

    I was nudged by a dear friend into returning to university a couple of years ago to finish my undergraduate degree. I am not “old” old, but I am decades older than my fellow classmates, and it is a very interesting experience. I’ve read so much more than my youthful counterparts (it’s amazing how little reading is actually required in university these days), and can make so many more connections to ideas I’ve been exposed to. On the other hand, sitting in a classroom of young people, lets one forget one’s age: I mean, I can’t actually see myself, only the young faces around me, so it’s easy to imagine myself as one of them.

    Of course, ageism is real: some young people have real difficulty even acknowledging my presence, let alone actually engaging with me—fortunately, that is a rare occurrence. And handing papers in to be marked by people who are either my peers in age or significantly younger is daunting. I find myself pushing myself that much harder to prove myself to both. And to vanquish those ghosts that still seek to shame me for having given up so long ago.

    • I am glad you went back, because it sounds like it’s a good experience for you. And I am not opposed to all degrees; I just question whether writing degrees in particular provide much for writers, except, of course, that they force you to write and finish things and learn to deal with criticism.
      You would probably enjoy Old in Art School.
      I should admit that I have two degrees of my own. My BA, which is in liberal arts, brought so much joy to me. I would do it again if I could. I probably wouldn’t go for the law degree if I had it to do over, but there is some value in having learned to think like a lawyer, so long as one doesn’t do it all the time.

  2. There is a lot of technical stuff in an art degree that’s lacking in the writing version. I saw that when Howard was taking classes — chemistry stuff, even, about pigments, and kinds of paper, and what makes a “support” archival, and so on. I suppose you could get it from books, but courses make a lot of sense.

    • It did occur to me art school might be different in that regard. You can learn to write by doing lots of reading and figuring out how sentences, paragraphs, stories, essays, etc. are constructed. But while it’s essential to look at art to learn how to make it, some of what you need to know about how a particular piece was made requires technical information that’s not clear from the work.
      So if you were going to do it on your own, you’d probably have to figure out the kinds of classes you need and take those anyway.

  3. My experience returning for another advanced degree at an advanced age was terrific. I loved working in learning and teams with younger people. They in turn never gave a thought to my capacity, while certainly noticing I was older. We even socialized — though as this was an accelerated program, and very expensive, and most of us also had jobs, younger or older student, we couldn’t afford to socialize much.

    It was a great experience spending so much time with people younger than I am, all of whom were ambitious, smart and hard-working. They were part of my education, I’ve always thought, helping to keep me in touch with the dynamics of this ever increasingly rapid change society.