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September 2018 Book Review: Old in Art School

It takes courage to change your life’s course, especially when you have a lot to lose, and the odds are against your success. That’s just what Dr. Nell Irvin Painter did when she left her chaired professorship at Princeton University to attend art school at the age of sixty-four.

Already a celebrated historian and author of several acclaimed works of history including Standing at Armageddon and the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, Painter decided to retire and pursue a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Then, she wrote a memoir about the experience—Old in Art School.

Old in Art School tries, as a historian might, to understand the essential qualities of an artist and how art changed her. What makes you an artist? Is it having your work in a gallery in New York City? Is it having a certain look or style or a certain way of working? These are some of the questions she explores in her memoir while grappling with the ways in which women and artists are seen and judged by their race, age, and appearance.

“It took her six years of art school and six decades of life, but she emerged with a growing body of work as well as a measure of self-acceptance — which, in a world full of bias and blind spots, can be the hardest thing to learn,” writes Jennifer Szalai of the New York Times. 

To hear her voice firsthand and learn more about Old in Art School, listen to or read this NPR interview with Painter. In the interview, when asked for advice for people considering a second career, she replies, “There are so many ways to do new things. You don’t have to do it whole hog like I did. There are so many ways. Yes, you can do it, but also know: It can be very sobering. Because being old in our society — it’s not for sissies.”

Painter is no sissy. Despite being told many times in many ways she would never be an artist, she kept to her goal, and her visual artwork has been shown in numerous galleries and collections. Her story serves as inspiration for people from all walks of life and any age.

Old in Art School was also named Bookpage’s Top Pick in Nonfiction of July 2018, more accolades for this hard-working woman with an apt last name.

Have you ever changed a career or embarked on a new journey? What obstacles stood in your way? Perhaps your new goal is to write your life’s stories. I can help you meet your goal. Please let me know how I can help.


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