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This new and ‘old’ artist offers a self-portrait in starting over

At 64, Princeton University professor Nell Irvin Painter became a painter. Moving away from the confines of historical research to embrace the freedoms of visual art, Painter confronts her own internal struggles in a new book, "Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over." Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, seeing life in broad brushstrokes and second acts.

    Jeffrey Brown shares the story of one woman who has embraced both.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Among many other things, Nell Painter is a proud resident of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, which, on the day we visited, was celebrating its diverse heritage in the annual Portugal Day Festival.

  • Nell Painter:

    And the people in here, they are either Portuguese or Portuguese-Americans or pretending to be Portuguese-Americans.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A block away, in an historic building that once housed a toy factory, Painter now lives and works as an artist, one who is both new as in, as in she only recently started this career, and, by her own telling, old as in her age.

    There's an anecdote early on with a young 18-year-old looking at you the first day and saying…

  • Nell Painter:

    How old are you?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    The story is told in a new book titled "Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over," how Nell Irvin Painter, a longtime Princeton University professor with a chair in American history, became, at age 64, Nell Painter, an actual painter, one working in a variety of forms and media.

    Part of it, she told me as she shuttled between her fourth-floor apartment and basement art studio, was moving away from the confines of historical research.

  • Nell Painter:

    What I really liked was stepping away from the tyranny of the archive and being able to move into fiction, visual fiction. So, now, when I think about art, I could do — I could make things up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you found that personally freeing?

  • Nell Painter:

    Absolutely. Visual art is very freeing, because it answers only to the eye.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Painter, who's now 75, had the support to make a change. Her husband, Glenn Shafer, is a noted mathematician and longtime professor at Rutgers.

    Her mother, Dona, offered her own example. After retiring as a public school administrator at 65, she became a writer, publishing several books about aging. And Painter's father, Frank, was chief lab technician at the University of California.

    Ever the academic, Painter went all in, in her new life, enrolling first as an undergraduate at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers university, and then in a master's program at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

  • Nell Painter:

    I also realized that, if I wanted to be a serious artist — and I thought, you know, I was a serious historian, I'm going to be a serious artist.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Her internal struggle comes out in this passage from the book.

  • Nell Painter:

    "As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian, because I would never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing.

    "Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, no. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn't always know that."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then there was what turned out to be the bigger issue, her age.

  • Nell Painter:

    Even though people didn't say in so many words, we are training you to be a hot, young artist, they were training us to be hot, young artists. So, with my 20th century eyes, I wasn't going to be a hot artist. And then there was no way I could be young.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right, because that becomes the defining factor.

  • Nell Painter:

    This was a new definition. I think there's room in our culture for interesting people who are black and for interesting people who are female and interesting people who are black and female. There's hardly any room to be interesting if you're old.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Early on, you have a professor who says you will never — you will never really be an artist, right?

  • Nell Painter:

    Yes. And, finally, you just say, oh, hell.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes? You don't worry about it?

  • Nell Painter:

    No. I am the artist that I am. And when I'm making art, it's like, when the machine gets going, it just goes. It makes its own art.

    And so who am I now to second-guess it? Just let it make its own art.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the midst of all this, Painter was flying cross-country to help care for her parents. Both would die during the writing of this book. And she published her latest history book, with the provocative title "The History of White People." It became a surprise bestseller.

  • Nell Painter:

    These things just come out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even as she herself was taking on a new identity, in fact, history does at times creep into her art, as in a series titled "This Is the America I Know."

    If we put the art aside for a moment, it kind of goes to what we do after we have done that thing in our lives, right, that we devoted our life to. Can we change our lives?

  • Nell Painter:

    Well, I would say yes, no.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That is not yes and no? That's yes, no?

  • Nell Painter:

    That's yes, no.

    When I got ready to go to art school, I said, OK, I have got everything arranged now. My parents are stabilized. Hah, hah, hah, hah.

    My book will come out and it'll get a review, but that won't change life. Hah, hah, hah, hah. And I will be doing something different. I will be following another of the pleasures of my life. I'm a lucky person that I can pursue another love.

    Well, it turns out that it all comes with you. It all comes with you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's no starting over, huh?

  • Nell Painter:

    There's a starting over, but there's no getting — there's no losing what was with you. As a friend said, you don't lay your other lives down. You just pack them on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey.

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