Nell Irvin Painter on Art, Aging and Telling the Truth

The historian and retired Princeton professor has published a new collection of essays, I Just Keep Talking.

Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter Photo: Courtesy of Dwight Carter

A distinguished historian who’s taught at Ivy League universities including Princeton and Penn, a respected visual artist, and an active member of the New York and New Jersey literary community, Nell Irvin Painter—at 81—sometimes seems as if she’s just getting started.

Cover of Nell Irvin Painter’s new collection of essays, "I Just Keep Talking"

Nell Painter’s new collection of essays, I Just Keep Talking, is out now.

I Just Keep Talking, published this spring by Doubleday, gathers more than 40 essays and dozens of visual works from Painter’s academic and artistic career, covering topics from the Clarence Thomas hearings to Toni Morrison’s fiction to what Donald Trump’s election tells us about whiteness. Though the subjects range widely, Painter’s prose is unifying and distinct. Her authorial voice is unfailingly precise, confident and clear, never stodgy and often exuberantly witty.

She’s that way in person, too, greeting me at the door of her apartment/art studio in East Orange with warmth and enthusiasm. Painter and her husband, Glenn Shafer, moved to East Orange in 2022 after 20 years in Newark. Before that, the couple lived in Princeton, which Painter describes as “a physically comfortable, easy place to be” that, despite the attractions of a beautiful house and yard, began to “feel really alienating.” In 2002, after time spent in Paris and Berlin convinced Painter and Shafer that they wanted to live in a city, they finally took the advice of “the late and very much lamented” scholar and Newark historian Clement Price, who told them to look for a house in the Forest Hill neighborhood of Newark.

These days, the couple splits their time between East Orange and a country house in the Adirondacks, but Painter is a big fan of the Garden State. “What I really like about New Jersey is that it’s so diverse. The world is in New Jersey,” she says. “When people think about what’s so wonderful about New York, half of what they’re thinking about is New Jersey.”

After a quick tour of Painter’s airy, art- and book-filled space, we settle into her work area, where she has one desk devoted to producing art and another to writing words. As we talk, she pops up to grab books she wants to show me, moving with a quickness and grace that make it hard to believe she’s 81.

“I don’t have any problem being 81 in the way I had a problem being 70,” she says. “The hardest birthday I ever had was when I turned 70. Because when you’re a woman in your seventies, you’re just an old woman. You’ve fallen off the cliff. You’re not even visible enough to be invisible. And I hated it.”

She smiles broadly. “But I knew that once you turn 80, you get to be Maya Angelou. And sure enough, I’m fine with 80.” There are the occasional physical complaints—“my hip got hysterical”—but she takes a strength class several times a week at the YMCA to “work the old body out.”

As for her mind, the three books she has coming out this year keep her sharp. Along with I Just Keep Talking, new paperback editions of her third and fourth books—Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol and Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era—will be published this spring.

And then there’s Painter’s art—a second career she took up after retiring from Princeton, where she taught until 2005 (before that, she taught at the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania). In her 2018 memoir, Old in Art School, Painter described the exhilarating and sometimes humbling experience of starting over as a student, first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, and then at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her MFA in painting in 2011.

It was her fascination with images and how they intersect with historical narratives that set in motion her third book. “I usually start books with questions,” Painter says. The question she had about Sojourner Truth was how to reconcile the tension between Truth’s famously fiery speech at an 1851 Ohio women’s rights convention with the equally famous image of Truth “sitting there with her knitting,” which “in those days [was] a very common poster on Women’s Studies doors.”

The result was her Sojourner Truth book, a radical correction to the record and a biography written vividly enough to earn kudos from novelist Joyce Carol Oates, her Princeton colleague, who writes that, “in her dual roles of historian and cultural critic, Nell Painter is brilliant.”

Painter writes, “There’s not much there in my life to match what my country likes to recognize as a Black narrative of hurt. We were never poor, though never rich, and physical violence and addiction played no part in my family.”

When I ask Painter about her family, she glows. Her parents, both Southerners, met in college and married soon after, a marriage that lasted 72 years, until her mother’s death. They raised Nell in Oakland, California, at the center of a loving and diverse community centered on their church, which welcomed interracial families and LGBTQ people.

The tragedy at the center of an otherwise happy childhood was the death of her older brother, Frank Jr., who died following surgery to remove his tonsils when he was five. She was a small baby. “The older I get, the more I feel like that death has marked my life,” she says. Her parents’ grief never went away, but they poured their love and support into their daughter.

She excelled at school, studying anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, French history at the University of Bordeaux, and African Studies at the University of Ghana. Her PhD in history is from Harvard.

There was an early marriage—“we just don’t talk about that!”—to an Englishman, and then years later, a second and enduring partnership with Shafer, her husband of 35 years. (A fellow academic, Shafer is a renowned mathematician with a distinguished faculty position at Rutgers.)

In addition to her work on Sojourner Truth and African American history, Painter published The History of White People in 2010, a sharp and often very funny look at the pseudoscience of racial difference. “That book bought me my Subaru!” she says, laughing. At the time, some reviewers seemed disappointed she wasn’t writing about Black people, a complaint that still rankles.

Painter’s art, which frequently incorporates text on top of figurative images, often addresses race and history. It’s also more personal than most of her writing, although she’s begun to share her own story in recent years, in Old in Art School, and now in I Just Keep Talking.

Some of Painter’s work, with its insistence on accuracy, sometimes brutal honesty, and complete disrespect for sacred cows, has ruffled feathers. “I don’t think of my history as political,” she says. “Clearly, it’s my point of view. They’re my questions and my answers. But they’re not questions and answers that depend on your agreeing with me. Something I always wanted in my writing was that people who disagreed with me could still have faith in what I said.”

“I tell the truth,” Painter says, “in situations where the truth is not welcome. It doesn’t take much, for a woman.”

Now that she’s left academia for a more creative life (although she is the board chair of the MacDowell Colony, a residency program for artists), Painter seems to be embracing the freedom and the work. Her elementary school teacher called her a troublemaker—“a label,” she writes, “I have yet to outlive.”

Kate Tuttle is a writer and book critic based in Montclair. She is is a past president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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