An “Encore Career” in Art

Question: Why did you transition from emeritus history professor to graduate art student?

Nell Irvin Painter:  At first it wasn’t hard.  It’s gotten harder and harder.  Being a graduate student is no fun and is hard, but I’m sticking with it.  I love making art.  Making art for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that I find very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, so it’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit of yellow.  You know, it just goes on and on and on.  Many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road.  My father had taught me how to draw.  My mother had taught me how to write.  I come from an academic family in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University of California Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thought this proves I haven’t got the talent.  Well this of course was nonsense.  This was silly young person thinking.  You need to do some work even if you have the talent.  So I just went the way that was easier, the way I knew what to do, but I have always had the pleasure of the eye.  I’ve always enjoyed color.  I’m a knitter.  Actually I knitted this sweater I’m wearing, so the visual sense has always been with me.  In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth and Sojourner Truth did not read and write.  She had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning of photographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on Sojourner Truth in photography.  That took me over to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent library and I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge.  Also my mother who died a little over a year ago changed her career at 65.  She started writing books.  It took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years to write and publish her second book and she was working on a website when she died at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91, I will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are with us today.  So it was that kind of sense of possibility.  They’re called encore careers.

Yes, Nell Irvin Painter is a painter. But she didn’t start pursuing an art MFA until she’d already become a distinguished Princeton historian. What prompted the shift in gears?

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