Weekend essay: ‘Old in Art School’ by Nell Painter
Published March 3, 2019 | Rachel Wagner
I still think about a woman I met on the PATH last summer. She was thirty-five but said she felt old. She had five kids of her own ranging from five to twenty-three, and her boss at work was twenty-two. She was genuinely impressed with how smart young people were nowadays, but she also worried about where she stood professionally. She felt like everyone joining the workforce had gone to college already. The best she thought she could do was get a certain certificate and just strap into a decent job.
I couldn’t believe she thought she was old. First of all, she was only a few years older than me. But I also wished she realized, they only want a twenty-two-year-old as a manager because they can pay them less. Looking back now, I see that both people are set up by this system: in ten years, entry work will look completely different again for that twenty-two-year-old manager.
I was reminded of that conversation while reading Neil Painter’s book Old in Art School. Painter writes about her experience going back to undergrad and grad school in her sixties. Though she is a professor already with a PhD in history, Painter finds herself on the other side of the classroom once again, questioning about issues of access (she can afford to pay for school out of pocket) and age (students between ages 22 and 35 who she was in classes with said they felt old). This book combines personal experience and historical stories with the evolution of her artwork. She includes pictures alongside her explanations of them and their process. Old in Art School combines different genres of literature—picture book, memoir, historical text, reference list—to create a complex narrative about being an artist between the art world and academia.
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Painter’s book is attentive to geographical location. A chapter entitled “Getting There” details her experiences in North Newark and on NJ Transit. She calls the section of Mount Prospect Avenue she lives on, “a commercial street… with a pharmacy, restaurants, a health center, a couple of liquor stores, and shops where you can send money to Latin America and have documents notarized” (34). At one point, she tries to discern if a record player on the street was drunk or not. She also listens attentively to the language being used by young adults on the light rail. Painter’s reading of that space is uncanny.
Learning to talk about art, however, turns out to be like learning a completely new dialect. During undergrad she sees that word “appropriate” being spoken of positively for the first time. In the humanities, it’s used in discourse about how imbalances of political power affect cultural theft. In art school, she found that it references how people took images and items from other artists without question. Painter said during her signing at the Newark Library this last summer that she learned, “historians cite, artists take stuff.”
Another important learning moment from the book involves a name she’s never heard out loud. She runs into this problem during critiques of student artwork (written as “crit” in the book). The style of “you-should-look-at” criticism stands out to her as most helpful because it gives you a personalized artist to research whose work is relevant to your own. But when someone recommended a certain artist to her, she realizes that she’s never said the name out loud—she’s only read it. That situation exemplifies a layer of intellectual barriers, even for those who are well read.
Painter finds that she isn’t totally free artistically until she’s out of school again. She gains skills in art school, both in terms of talking about art and the process of making different kinds of art, but it’s only outside of the watchful eye of academic life that she comfortably inserts text and Black American history into her paintings, like she really wants to. The Newark Arts community gave her opportunities, like a residency at Index Art Center on Washington Street, which help make her comfortable with her own art.
I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that was just about the process of going to college. Old in Art School is appropriately readable in its approach to this topic. Painter’s re-entrance into the school system as an older student helps expose parts of the mystery that make higher education seem so prestigious. Who goes and stays in academia often depends on who understands the intricacies of the culture.