I found out about Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter through that great arbiter, Instagram. Author Austin Kleon posted photos of his office typewriter behind which were shelves filled with books. Ever curious, I pinched and zoomed to see titles and this one intrigued me because of the time I spent in art school in my thirties. I was old then in that context.
Old is a story on so many levels. It’s the story of
- a 64-year-old wildly accomplished historian (Princeton history professor emerita) and pointedly articulate black woman (best selling author of 8 books) who goes back to art school, humbly and eagerly for the joy of it.
- a mind honed to perfection by the 20th century (her words) confronted by the logic peculiar to the art world and finding the outlines of contrast
- a woman at a time when her first noticed identity transitioned from being black to being old
- fighting to go on to graduate art school when people adviser her of the limits they saw for her
- forging connections between black artists in history and her own approach
- navigating two superlative careers, one in history, and one in art
- the sweaty scrum of effort to define a successful artist as also an older married person with an established career and a permanent address
- digging deeply for energy and love to chase down her dreams and to care for aging and ill parents on the other coast
I must write to her, Miss Nell. Coming from a business career, architected on the logic of work, measurements, and external criteria, I also found art school criteria puzzling. Painter articulates that how the work is made and why it is made (process and concept) are equally or more important than what the work is or how much skill it took to make it. Painter describes the delicious joy in pursuing the making of work and reveals her transitions in thought as she develops her process. Maybe it is possible to reach her. To appreciate her. To thank her for making the effort to tell this story.
You should definitely read this book if:
- you want to learn from someone else’s journey
- you are thinking about going to art school of any kind
- you are wanting more than others think is sufficient for you, whatever the justification
- you are older than the norm in an area you want to pursue
- you’re thinking about how to navigate the birthing of your later-in-life chapters
Personally, I would just read it anyway. Painter’s zest and determination will fill you with courage to dream, believe and do.