Old In Art School

A Memoir of Starting Over

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Book Description

A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, this memoir of one woman’s later in life career change is “a smart, funny and compelling case for going after your heart’s desires, no matter your age” (Essence).

Following her retirement from Princeton University, celebrated historian Dr. Nell Irvin Painter surprised everyone in her life by returning to school––in her sixties––to earn a BFA and MFA in painting. In Old in Art School, she travels from her beloved Newark to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design; finds meaning in the artists she loves, even as she comes to understand how they may be undervalued; and struggles with the unstable balance between the pursuit of art and the inevitable, sometimes painful demands of a life fully lived.

How are women and artists seen and judged by their age, looks, and race? What does it mean when someone says, “You will never be an artist”? Who defines what an artist is and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference?

Bringing to bear incisive insights from two careers, Painter weaves a frank, funny, and often surprising tale of her move from academia to art in this “glorious achievement––bighearted and critical, insightful and entertaining. This book is a cup of courage for everyone who wants to change their lives” (Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage).

About the Author

Praise For This Book

“Candid and cheerfully irreverent . . . Bringing new energy and insight to questions that have long preoccupied the art world . . . One of the most enjoyable aspects of Old in Art School is seeing her relax her historian’s grip on social meaning and open up to new ways of seeing.”
The New York Times

“After years of writing history, Painter has become a visual artist, but she also discovers that she does not need to leave history behind. In this book, a memoir, she brings the two 'truths' together––the personal and the collective, the artistic and the historical––and the result is a heartening coming–of–age story for the retired set.”
The Washington Post

“Historian Nell Painter was 64 when she stepped down from her job at Princeton to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. She chronicles that experience in her memoir Old in Art School, bringing her fierce intelligence to questions not just of age but also race and what it means to be an artist.”
Los Angeles Times

“Twelve years ago, at the age of 64, Princeton history professor emerita and best–selling author Nell Painter decided to reinvent herself as an artist, an avocation she had always longed to pursue but never had the confidence or opportunity to commit to . . . She tells her story with wit, honesty and insight as she learns to see her art, and herself, all over again.”
The Wall Street Journal

“This feisty and delightfully irreverent memoir is a coming–of–age story for the over–60 set . . . The most impressive portrait that she achieves here is her own—an unstoppable force tethered to an iron will.”
The Boston Globe

“I was struck by the joyousness in its pages; this is an unexpected love story, written with a creative, passionate irreverence––like a painting rendered in words. Old in Art School is a vivid lesson in learning not to see ourselves through other’s eyes, and in following dreams.”
The Seattle Times

“In this sweet, nuanced memoir, revered historian Painter recounts her late–in–life (and post–retirement) decision to earn a BFA and MFA in painting, and how getting an up–close view to all things art changed her life.” —Entertainment Weekly

“A smart, funny and compelling case for going after your heart's desires, no matter your age or what your critics say.”

“Painter, most famous for her book The History of White People, now addresses the equally ambitious question of what it takes to be an artist—and whether or not she has it . . . If this book were a novel, the artist would have been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art by now, but Art School arrives at a messier, braver conclusion. Painter is a painter because she studied it, works hard at it and keeps doing it. Being able to paint is one kind of gift, this book suggests, but learning to paint is another, and just as precious.”

Old in Art School is a glorious achievement—bighearted and critical, insightful and entertaining. This book is a cup of courage for everyone who wants to change their lives. This is not a story about starting over; it’s about continuing on the journey. Nell Painter has taken the coming of age story to a new level—this is what you get when a wise person gets even wiser, when a true artist spreads her wings.”
—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow