“Old in Art School” book 1.31.2019

Recently I finished reading “Old in Art School – A Memoir of Starting Over” by Nell Painter. This is a tale of an black/African American/non-white female who left her successful career (Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University) to attend art school at the age of 64. Painter returned to school as an art undergrad at Mason Gross School of Arts (part of Rutgers), and earned her masters at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Painter is a good writer. She’d already written seven books, so she’s a seasoned author. You can read all sorts of “Old in Art School” reviews online with a simple Internet search. A few things that grabbed me:

  • Painter explaining that she didn’t need money – that she had a husband to support her while she was in school. She writes, “This blessing came with a barb to stick in me and into other older women in art who don’t have to worry about money. The combination of gender plus money plus age plays into a stereotype amateurism, even of inability, as in the impossibility of an old woman with money making good art.” I confess that I’ve felt a twinge of this myself. And to hear that Painter feels/thinks this brings perspective for me.
  • She writes, “I should have known better to succumb, for my mentors had warned me of art graduate school as in experience in humiliation.” I’ve thought now and then about returning to school for a graduate degree in art. But I never imagined it would be an exercise in humiliation. I hope all schools aren’t like that.
  • “My alternative crits conferred the crucial endowment that only crits can provide – the thoughtful, well-informed focus in your work.” Art critiques are what I miss most about being in art school. Critiques where a group of people discuss works objectively. I’ve thought about starting my own critique with art friends, but that hasn’t happened yet.
  • And finally, Painter asks, “So who the hell is An Artist?… A value judgement suspended between market value and aesthetic imagination. Add what the art world calls the critical consensus, what the critics agree is the right stuff, along with three queries: Who counts as a critic” Where does the criticism appear? When do you take your snapshot to capture consensus?” Painter then goes on to write about her questioning and self doubt as An Artist. From my perspective, I think if I continue to call myself An Artist – I like her capitalization of these words! – maybe one day it’ll sink in and feel real. I don’t want to worry about market value or art critics. I’ll just keep creating.

Sometimes I imagine returning to school. I’m 61 years old, so reading this book gives me hope that I’m not too old yet:) And other times I think I’ll put myself through my own “school” or self study of art– with online classes, book study, in-person courses and workshops, and projects with deadlines. And then I tell myself what the heck!? Enjoy your retirement, Rachel!


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