Now an artist, Nell Irvin Painter has written a book — “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over" — of her challenges in art school and her startling realization that, suddenly, her age defined her. But it’s also a joyous book; a bumpy but unmistakable love story.

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Lit Life

When Nell Irvin Painter retired after a distinguished career as a history professor at Princeton University, she could have done what many retirees do: travel, relax, read, decompress. Instead, at age 64, she went to art school.

Now, with a B.F.A. from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, Painter is an artist — and the author of “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over.” She’ll speak about her book July 9 at the Northwest African American Museum.

On the phone this week from her Newark, New Jersey, home, Painter said that she dreamed of being an artist from a very young age, but it didn’t seem to be in the cards. “I graduated from college in the Jurassic Age,” she said, laughing. “It was 1964.” Growing up as an honor student in an academic family, she had a brief fling with art in college that ended badly: a C in a sculpture class. “I thought it was because I didn’t have enough talent,” she says now. “Looking back, I know it was because I didn’t do any work.”

But a love of drawing and painting stayed with her, throughout her years at Princeton (which produced several previous books, including “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol” and “The History of White People”). Intrigued by what she describes in her book as “the pursuit of pleasure,” and inspired by her mother, Dona Irvin, who became a writer in her 60s, she waded into the artist pool by signing up for a summer drawing and painting marathon at the New York Studio School. This meant weeks of commuting to Manhattan to stand up and draw and paint for eight hours a day, but, “I loved it. I just loved it!” Painter remembered.

Soon came acceptance at Mason Gross — and, as classes began, a startling realization that, suddenly, her age defined her. “I was invisible,” said Painter. “I was not expecting the enormity of it.”  The title of her book came from that experience. “If you’re black, your race is supposed to be the thing that defines you. If you’re a woman, being a woman is supposed to be the thing that defines you. And if you’re a black woman, you go through life as a black woman. And I was used to that. But here I was, an old black woman, with the stress on old. I saw people actually not seeing me. It was instantaneous; they would look away. Everyone was embarrassed by my presence.”

On top of the labels of old, black and female, Painter was an academic — and, she said, even if you’re a “cute young white man,” being academic in art school, where creativity is prized, is enough to put a big boulder in your path. Painter wasn’t able to push that boulder aside, but, “I sort of trained myself not to see it.” She learned, in a journey detailed in the book, not to see herself through other’s eyes, or other’s hearts.

“Old in Art School” describes many challenges during those years: eating alone in cafeterias; juggling coursework with cross-country visits to her elderly, ailing parents; struggling with self-confidence after particularly punishing classroom “crits.” But it’s also a joyous book; a bumpy but unmistakable love story. Painter walks us through the work of many of her favorite artists (asked on the phone to name three that were especially influential, she cites Robert Colescott, Andy Warhol and Faith Ringgold), and vividly describes the joy of drawing (it is, she says, “a means of slowing down, of really seeing what I was looking at”), the smell of the studios, the “visual, tactile sweetness” of art-supply stores.

Just as her career as an artist came from pursuing an unexpected path, so did “Old in Art School.” Encouraged by friends to write about her experience, Painter approached her then-editor and was quickly dismissed. “He said, ‘Who’d want to read it?’ ” Likewise, her then-agent said there was no market for such a book. The plan languished for a while — until Painter decided to get a new agent and a new editor. Her proposal was still “turned down a thousand times,” but eventually she found a publisher. Writing the book took three years and many, many revisions; it’s a form of creative nonfiction that’s different from her history books (though “The History of White People” has a similarly irreverent tone). Informal yet passionate, witty yet heartfelt, “Old in Art School” feels like a painting rendered in words; a vivid picture of an experience in time.

Now settled into the life of a working artist (during our talk, she was busily wrapping one of her works to be sent out to a group show), Painter offers two kinds of advice to those who, like her, are tempted to pursue an unexpected path later in life. The first is material and physical: before starting, have your life arranged — your family, your money, your health.

The second part, she said, is to “inform yourself, in a serious way. Usually that means take a class in whatever it is, at your local community college or your local college. Try a studio class. See if you really like doing it, a lot.” In other words, see if you fall in love; you might be surprised where that love takes you.


Nell Irvin Painter speaks about “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over” at 7 p.m. Monday, July 9 at Northwest African American Museum, 2300 South Massachusetts St., Seattle; free; 206-518-6000,