Alexis Interviews Nell Painter, Author of OLD IN ART SCHOOL

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I was drawn to Nell Painter’s memoir the first time I glimpsed the cover and title of Old in Art School. I read a couple of pages and was immediately engrossed. Her candor and vivacity kept me engaged throughout the chapters as I experienced how her journey back to art school in her older years transformed her conception of art, herself, and her career. I spoke with her to explore more of what inspired her to write about her experiences and where else she’s headed!

Alexis Mercedes: What spurred your impulse to write a memoir about your experiences transitioning from historian to visual artist?

Nell Painter: At first I felt I was reporting back to people in my former life after they had asked to know what it was like to start over with something practically brand new. They asked me to keep notes, and I did, and those notes became the raw material for my memoir.

But during the process of writing, the work became more than a report from elsewhere. I found I had to write about myself, which was something new to me. It was hard. It was liberating. It was embarrassing. But I think my readers appreciate my honesty as it resonates with their own experiences. And some readers are amazed by my candor, even as they welcome it.

AM: What was your process like while writing your memoir? Any major discoveries, and did you always plan on writing one someday?

NP: Other than writing my report from art school, I didn’t initially plan to write as candid a memoir as what it became. Pulling away from certainty is something I couldn’t have done without the guidance of my agent, who has deep experience in creative nonfiction. As for process, it was pretty much like my process in writing history, that is, in the purely writing part: Write. Revise. Write. Revise. Write. Revise, over and over and over. Mostly I write on the computer, but often I write longhand with a fountain pen. That slows the writing down and pushes me deeper into whatever I’m dealing with. I like to write longhand with a Pelikan fountain pen.

AM: Throughout your memoir, you consistently highlight what seems to be one of your favorite subjects: the comings and goings of people. The people on the sidewalks in New Jersey, the students at Mason Gross, the citizens on the bus line. Would you say that people are a large source of inspiration for your art? What continues to inspire your pieces today?

Maybe that’s the historian in me, or the curiosity about people that made me a historian in the first place—after all, historians are people who read other people’s mail. As for inspiration now, people do remain a part, but there are also text and abstraction and color. What I draw or paint doesn’t have to make sense or be coherent, which is very different from historical meaning.

These days, when talks and interviews and travels connected to Old in Art School continue to occupy so much of my time, I can’t concentrate on art making very well. During my August break I made a series of small hand-colored lino prints, Swampy Land by the River Don, inspired by a 17th-century map of Russia that I found in my visual archive. Those pieces gave me enormous pleasure, and visitors to my studio like them very much, too. I'm sending you one.

AM: I myself conduct research in my academic studies and create visual art, so I was very inspired by your journey and appreciated how you seemed to completely reinvent your mindset towards art by reinventing the way you learned. What would you like readers to take away from Old in Art School?

NP: Something related to your comment would be that discourse meaning and visual meaning aren’t the same thing. But the fundamental take away from Old in Art School is not to see yourself through other people’s eyes.

AM: What are you currently working on? What's next in your career?

NP: Only now that OiAS is five months old and I can see the end of its book tour (end of 2018) have I been able to focus on the questions you ask. What I’m currently working on is several things: reading scores of biographies for the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography; finishing a banner commission for Rutgers University’s commemoration of Paul Robeson; completing paperwork for the sales from my open studio a week ago; trying to stay on top of my upcoming travel; and applying for artist’s residencies for my new book projects so I can get away from home and get my own work done. Also email. All in all, not very sexy. But that’s what I’m currently working on.

My new projects are two artist’s books combining my drawings and my text. The working title of one is The History of White People for Dummies, Illustrated by the Author, because the original publication of The History of White People in 2010 is now, since Trump, very much out of date. My other new project doesn’t really have even a decent working title, but for now, I call it Emmett Till and Me Over the Years. The years being 1955 to 2018 and encompassing the event of his murder, its national reception then and now, the patrimonialization (as the French would say) of Till in US history, and heritage/civil rights tourism.

I don’t know that I have a career. I just go from one thing to another, step by step. That’s the way I like it.

Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over Cover Image
ISBN: 9781640090613
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Counterpoint LLC - June 19th, 2018

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