Historian Finds Freedom in Art

Nell Irvin Painter, already a Harvard PhD., was 64 when she enrolled as an undergraduate at Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA followed by a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Nell Irvin Painter
Nell Irvin Painter
Photo Courtesy of Joanna Morrissey

When Nell Irvin painter returned to college, after retiring from a prestigious career as an author, historian and professor at Princeton University, she faced plenty of questions. Most often: Why?

Painter, already a Harvard PhD., was 64 when she enrolled as an undergraduate at Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she earned a BFA followed by a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Again the question: Why?

“I went because I wanted to. And I could,” she told a group at the public library in her native Newark during a reading from Old in Art School (Counterpoint), a memoir about her experience, on the eve of its publication in July.

Painter clearly enjoys the freedom of being an artist. “As a historian,” she told the Newark group, “you work from an archive, something that already exists. If you don’t like what’s in there, you can’t pretend it’s not there or make up things and put them there. But as an artist, you can do it all.”

Her memoir captures the adrenaline rush of learning and honing her artistic skills. While Painter’s age marked her as an outsider in art school, back in Newark she found a welcoming community of artists of all ages—to whom she dedicates the book. She’s especially thankful for Newark’s Gallery Aferro, which she describes as “this new artist’s home.”

Painter will read and discuss her work at Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind series at 5 pm October 20. For information, visit montclairpubliclibrary.org.

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