Nell Painter | Old In Art School | Counterpoint | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,906 words)

Curiosity in my regard, and there was a lot of it, didn’t only come from inside Mason Gross, for generally the kids were cool with whatever. Curiosity came from people of my generation in my soon to be former existence. They regarded my new life, my adventure, in the words of some, my “journey,” with envy and hesitation. They identified with my break for freedom but feared their academic or lawyerly selves had already quashed their inner Beyoncé. They wondered if they, too, could leave dutiful, controlled professional personas and fling themselves into a new, hyper-saturated, Technicolor — no, RBG color-coded — artistic life of creativity and apparent abandon. I had yearned like that before actually walking away. Professing admiration for my bravery, my friends asked how I did it and hoped I would send back a report.

Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.

I said, because I wanted to.

Because I could.

I knew from my mother I could do it.

My smart, small, intense, beautiful, disciplined little mother, Dona Irvin, administrator to author, held the key to my confidence. To a very great extent, she still does. The so much more of myself beyond my sex, race, and age that I cherish is rooted in my family, in my father the gregarious bohemian, who had taught me to draw decades ago, but even more, in my mother, who starting over at sixty-five, blossomed as an older woman, transforming herself into a creator in her own right after a lifetime as a shyly dutiful wife and mother. As an older woman, she cast off the strictures of a lifetime — well, some of them — and took to wearing red or white with her dark skin and taking the bus overnight to play slot machines in Reno.

My mother had never written a book before 65. She had started her career as a school administrator late, after the civil rights movement opened opportunities for an educated black woman, and she had grown professionally. She overcame crippling shyness whose stutter made the telephone her monster. At a liberating feminist retreat at Asilomar, near Monterey, she reclaimed her own name, Dona, after decades of letting other people correct her. Yes, people tried to correct her pronunciation of her own name and talk her into accepting the more easily recognizable “Donna.” At the Asilomar retreat, she put a stop to that and made people call her by her own name. And she started writing in earnest.

Always a terrific writer of letters and reports, she’d never attempted a book. After Asilomar, she found steel within to pull it off.

She devoted ten years to research and publishing her first book, The Unsung Heart of Black America, about the middle-class black people she knew as close, long-term friends in the United Methodist church we attended in the 1950s and early 1960s in Oakland, a work the fine and generous historian John Hope Franklin blurbed.

It took me years to sense the bravery, the sturdy determination her metamorphosis demanded, for she was tougher than I could see during her lifetime. I knew she delved deep to express herself with unadorned honesty. Hard for a woman. Doubly hard for a black woman. Triply hard for a black woman of a class and a generation never wanting to let them (meaning, mainly, white people) catch even a sidelong glimmering of your doubts.

Suppressing doubt and never washing dirty linen in public came naturally to my mother. A public that was black and wore the beloved faces of her friends awaited my mother’s writing as an upstanding black person. That public’s expectation of her as a black author discouraged her speaking as an individual whose identity exceeded race. She felt that pressure and wrote her first book as a black woman, never losing sight of race in America. Yet there was more to her.

It’s as though individuality, the pride of white Americans, belongs only to them; as though a black woman speaking as an individual must be backing away from blackness.

It took her ten more years to write and publish her frank and funny memoir, I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old. Just pause for a moment and imagine the guts and good humor she needed to use that title, to admit to looking good, and to write the word “old” and apply it to herself.

I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old.

People used to say that to her all the time, and now they’re saying it to me.

In her memoir, she went on to claim herself as a unique individual, racialized, but with much more to her than race. She wrote as a daughter of two parents in conflict on the most intimate level. The conflict stayed within the range of ordinary human misbehavior — the usual adultery and betrayal — but talking about that exceeded the vocabulary of race alone. Hard to do in the USA, because it’s hard to describe black humanity beyond race and so easy, practically an automatic response, to interpret a claim of individuality as treason to blackness. It’s as though individuality, the pride of white Americans, belongs only to them; as though a black woman speaking as an individual must be backing away from blackness. My mother had to find words to claim both uniqueness and blackness. But find those words she did. Dona was working on a website about vigorous old people of many races when she died at ninety-one, not at all ready to leave.

Looking at her, identifying with her when I was 64, I figured, hell, I could do that. I could do something new in the quarter-century or more still before me, even starting from close to scratch. My mother’s example made me think I could lay down one life and pick up a new one.


I had been a youthful artist, and for years I carried a sketchbook and drew all the time. I was still drawing when I lived in Ghana with my parents in the 1960s. These three drawings, pencil on paper, were in my sketchbooks there.

Ghana gave my Bay Area eyes, squinting into a bright blue sky, a whole new palette, a landscape and architecture and people in clothes and rioted textures and colors. Something grew on every surface: bushes, flowers, or mold, or all of it all at once. The California Bay Area that I had left was a beautiful, but a eucalyptus gray place, foggy in the morning, dryly sunny in the day, with mostly light-colored people.

In Ghana, I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was red, the trees and grass blue-green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Red-orange bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions that barricaded the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together, this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.

In Ghana, I taught French in the language school and gave the news in French on Ghana Radio for a year. I can still hear the drums

Boom boom boom      Boom  Boom

announcing “Ghana calling!” I began graduate study in pre-colonial African history at the Institute of African Studies before a coup d’état deposing Kwame Nkrumah ended his nascent African socialism and sent us Afro-Americans, including Maya Make (later Maya Angelou) to Egypt, to Europe, and for us Irvins, home to California.

I completed my MA in African history at UCLA, having previously discovered a love of history during my junior year abroad at the University of Bordeaux. After UCLA a year of rattlebrained, youthful follies too embarrassing to mention, I ended up at Harvard for a Ph.D. in history. I quit smoking. I wrote a dissertation that became my first book, published by — ahem — Alfred A. Knopf. Many books and professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Princeton University followed.

I was a whiz kid, tenured and promoted at Penn in three years and promoted to full professor at Chapel Hill in another three. In the early days of my career, I never questioned my ability to do well in my field. I loved history, loved research, loved writing — I still love history, love research, love writing. I published books at a regular pace: Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976), The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South (1979), Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (1986), Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996), Southern History Across the Color Line (2002), Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), and the Penguin Classic Editions of Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And there were fellowships (Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, &c.), scholarly societies (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Antiquarian Society, &c.), and honorary doctorates (Dartmouth, Yale, &c.).

My mother’s example made me think I could lay down one life and pick up a new one.

I don’t want this to sound effortless, for it was all a lot of work, a hell of a lot of dedicated work. Good work, I mean, work that felt good to me, for writing history gave me enormous pleasure. If you want to see the whole panoply of achievement, check out my website, or look at my Facebook page. Over the years, though, images made their way into my writing of history.

Visual art’s gravitational field had renewed its pull decades before my mother had reinvented herself as a writer. Still, I cannot shrug off my change of field as simply a matter of time. It took place step by step, as I was writing history.

My history writing tugged me toward art over the years. I used a photograph I had taken as the frontispiece of my second book, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, and I wrote about the photograph as a meaningful image, not merely an illustration. Then came the “Truth in Photographs” chapter in my fourth book, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, on Truth’s self-fashioning through photographs. I spent hour after hour preparing that chapter in the abundance of Princeton’s Marquand Art History Library, where the art books fill four levels and you can sit comfortably for hours, with the history and theory of photography. In Marquand I learned the rhetoric of the image and critical seeing.

I illustrated Creating Black Americans with fine art. Though it’s a narrative history, Creating Black Americans gave me an introductory course in African American art history. There was, I discovered, more good art by black artists than I could ever cram into one book, even limiting the art to subjects bearing on history. None — okay, very few — of those artists figured in the art history I would study in art school.

The books I wrote weren’t art history, but each one took me beyond text into new visual archives. I loved working with images; I loved learning new history and new artists. This was not like my first undergraduate experience in art.


Back in the 1960s I had studied art at Berkeley, had been an art major and drawn a couple of covers for the campus humor magazine. My art major ended with a C in sculpture, a C I earned by not doing any work. Why should I have to work at sculpture, I reckoned like the kid I was, because talent should insure success. I saw talent as everything, therefore exerting myself would make no difference. What kind of reasoning is that? Dumb kid reasoning. I didn’t know how to work on learning sculpture, and I didn’t know any professional artists to show me a way. On the other hand, my academic family applauded my writing. There ended my story in art for decades. Except for occasional sketching and knitting, I put down the visual and wrote a very great deal of text. Eventually, my books returned me to art, and once back in images, I concluded, Yes, I think I could stay in the world of pictures. Let me test this out.

During my last year teaching at Princeton I took two introductory painting classes. Introductory painting came after my regular teaching and kept me in Princeton to 10 PM. After that, I’d get home to Newark in the middle of the night. My generous Princeton colleague Valerie Smith let me stay over at her house and sweetly bought one of my first drawings. At first, I didn’t know to photograph my work, so Valerie’s drawing has disappeared from my files. The office of another Princeton colleague, Edmund White, was next to my painting studio. He bought my very first painting, my attempt to depict a set-up in various surfaces and shades of red and yellow, shiny, matte, opaque and translucent, saturated and toned down. The reflective red hat contrasted with two drapes, one also reflective but mixed with blue, the other with a pattern that fractured in the folds of the cloth. The bright yellow shopping bag in front combined a shiny surface and a broken pattern.

In this first Princeton class I painted gray scales and figures and landscapes and learned light sources and perspective, as in two other early paintings. The gray scale began simply as that, a gray scale, where you alter hue and saturation between black and white. I liked that exercise and added mountains in the distance. It still looks like a gray scale, but with something else going on. The blue painting came from an exercise in creating depth through perspective, shadow, and luminosity. I made both these paintings on manufactured canvases 24 x 18”. I still have a whole pile of these canvases, which I consider beneath me now. My second Princeton painting class taught me how to make my own stretcher bars and to stretch and gesso my canvases, thoroughly enjoyable manual labor.

My Princeton painting classes took me to museums, to Philip Guston’s cadmium red, ivory black, and titanium white cigar-smoking Klansmen and John Currin’s skinny, huge breasted naked white women the color of supermarket peach flesh. I joined the throng of Guston admirers, but never acquired a taste for Currin’s virtuoso painting. I still stumble over his skinny, big-breasted women and wonder why his famously rendered Thanksgiving turkey is raw.


Even before art school and with what I look back on as incredible hubris, I toyed with the idea of myself as a professional artist, not a mere Sunday painter. I might want to go to art school, not just to undergraduate art school, but to graduate art school as well. I might want to work professionally. I might want to be as professional a painter as I was a historian. Well, within reason. Why would that pose a problem?

As I poke into the crevices of memory, I touch another motive for leaving history, a motive that wants to stay beneath the surface, pulling back into deeper obscurity like a darkness-dwelling troglobite I’m dragging into the light for you. It is not a nice feeling to acknowledge, but candor demands acknowledgment, for otherwise I just might have remained in the grooves of academe. For there was, as always, much more history yet for me to write. Any sentiment other than gratitude strikes me as most unbecoming in one whose achievements have been honored with a Princeton professorship, honorary doctorates from the Ivy League and beyond, and the presidencies of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. What could be more annoying (a word I learned to employ in art school) than a person of privilege whining about what hasn’t been bestowed? Nonetheless. Nonetheless, let me whine a little. There was some sour sense of limits reached, of disappointment over book prizes not won and books not reviewed. It was as though I had assumed I’d be exempt from the rules of the world, where people who looked like me or who didn’t fit an image of how they were supposed to be were never fully seen or acknowledged. For all my lovely recognition, I seemed not properly to fit in.

You can erase what you draw, even what you’ve spent a long time drawing and sweating over.

I’ve never been a black person easily captured in the idea of a black person—come to think of it, no one is. No person, no black or otherwise person fits a racial mold. The idea of a black person is a stereotype that shifts its shape in order never to fit anyone real. I’ve hardly suffered or overcome hardship, can’t talk ghetto, won’t don a mask of black authenticity or speak for black people as a whole. Too many disparate themes reside in me for coherent recognition: images, phrases, people, and things from the multiple worlds I live in and have lived in over many years of life. The freedom I treasure in art reminds me of walking in Bordeaux in the 1960s and inclining toward the study of history. My mother’s dismay at the appearance of aging triggers scattered associations, from the biography of a French theorist to older women artists. Driving down I-95 from Providence calls up a memory of skidding my beetle across a snow-covered bridge over the Connecticut River when I was a graduate student at Harvard. This jumble is not smooth, but its disorderliness is what makes me me.

When I sniveled to friends that I had never received a book prize of import, they pulled me up short, and not just by recalling my honors. They reminded me of the world we live in and the off-kilter nature of my writing. What on earth did I expect? I had enough, I really did have enough in many meanings of the word. Enough in hand, I left history, in the sense of no longer writing scholarly history books as I used to, with honor and fulfillment. History remains a part of me, naturally, and it remains in me even though my relation to history became uneasy in art school.


After my two toe-dipping Princeton painting classes, I took the summer drawing and painting marathon at the New York Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. The Studio School started at 9 a.m., ended at 6, with crits stretching past 9 p.m. Okay. For me that meant get up at 6 a.m. walk across the park, take Newark light rail to Newark Penn Station. New Jersey Transit to New York Penn Station, that hell of thank-you-for-your-patience dysfunction. The 2 or 3 subway downtown, get off at 4th Street, walk to 8th Street, and arrive before everyone else.

Then the pay-off. Stand up and draw and paint for eight hours. I loved it.


The paper, the charcoal, the canvas, the set-ups, the model, the space, the perspective, the shadows, the colors, the smell. Concentrating hard, I did it wrong, and I did it right. I painted a still life in red and blue that taught me that you can’t mix cerulean blue from ultramarine and white oil paints as they come from a tube. A figure painting asked for warm but light browns for skin and an indefinite darker shade for light skin in shadow. This shade has no name, so you mix it out of the leavings on your palette.

Here’s the best lesson of all from the Studio School marathon: Staple a 5’ x 4’ piece of tough watercolor paper to the wall; cover it with a charcoal drawing of the model in the set-up, the very best drawing you can make. Cover the entire paper. This takes hours standing up, drawing in the heat. Sweating. Now rub out your drawing with a chamois. Owwww!! All that work for nothing! Draw it again, only 10” to the right. Okay. Concentrate. Draw. Sweat. Fill up the paper. Rub it out. Erase it again? Yes. Rub it out. Draw the model and set-up 1/3 smaller. Draw draw draw. Rub it out. Again.

Lesson learned? Essential lesson learned! You can erase what you draw, even what you’ve spent a long time drawing and sweating over. 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.

I loved it. Even though I was the oldest by far, I stood up and painted right up until 6. Some of the kids came late, farted around, took two-hour lunch breaks, and left before dinner without washing their brushes. Crit came after dinner break. To accommodate Newark light rail’s evening schedule, I would leave crit around 9 PM. Start all over the next morning, five days a week. Okay, I could do it! Let’s go!

I applied to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers with a portfolio of drawings and paintings from Princeton and the Studio School marathon. Rutgers admitted me. What a thrill! What an accomplishment! My knowing Friend Bill hinted later that undergraduate art school isn’t all that hard to get into. Be that as it may, my admission puffed me up as a worthy achievement. I affiliated with Douglass College, the (sort-of formerly) all-women’s college, for its feminist tradition, of course, also for its quiet.


In the summer before I started at Mason Gross, Dear Husband Glenn and I attended an art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. You will only hear of Glenn occasionally, when absolutely necessary because Glenn doesn’t want a role in this story. We were together in Paris, where the Grand Palais had installed a huge show of stirring paintings, abstract and figurative, witty videos ironic and silly, sculpture bright and colorless, and perfectly gorgeous drawings: a feast for the eyes of color and movement and sound. Wait a minute. What in creation was spilling over several folding tables—used ball-point pens, foil, torn newspaper, doodles, bits of paper, the contents of a wastepaper basket held together with cardboard and brown packing tape. A shapeless mass of faded color and haphazard images. Too-muchness splayed out from one section to another without any composition, without coherent color that I could see, as though a drunken Do-It-Yourselfer had turned over his trash barrel in the lofty Grand Palais. Hunh? An art enigma. A mistake, surely. But what did I know? I did not know this was art.

This piece by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn had won the show’s first prize, and Hirschhorn was installation art’s shining international star. I hadn’t yet heard of installation art and didn’t know that in the twenty-first century this was more than any old art; it was good art, excellent art. The best art. With work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and the Walker Art Center, Hirschhorn had hit all The Art World’s high notes and strutted off with its prizes.[1] Clearly, this was art, and Hirschhorn was a major artist. Hirshhorn’s work raised the oldest questions in the world of art, questions that followed me for a very long time afterward. What counts as art? Who is an artist? Over the course of several years, I learned the answers. The hard way. In art school.


From Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter, published by Counterpoint.


[1] By “The Art World” I mean the important museums and galleries that bestow visibility and money on selected artists, virtually all white men. Without caps, the world mans everything in and around art, regardless of sex and race and wealth and wide recognition.