It's never too late: Why this successful NJ historian changed career paths in her late 60s
Rod Leith, the Rutherford borough historian, gives a tour of the Kip house, a Dutch colonial stone house that was built before the American Revolution.
Nell Painter requires two lengthy CVs not only to fit in all she's accomplished in her long life, but also for the myriad identities she's fashioned for herself: historian and artist, Black woman and, yes, "old" woman.
At 78, Painter, who lives in Newark, boasts a decorated legacy as a scholar of Black history. She's received degrees from Harvard, theUniversity of Ghana and the University of Bordeaux in France, among others. Prestigious universities, including Yale and Dartmouth, have awarded her honorary degrees, and she's earned numerous titles and published critically acclaimed written works.
But in her late 60s, Painter pivoted from academia to create multimedia art for a simple reason: She wanted to.
Painter believes many women aren't comfortable giving that explanation for a major life change. This week, she'll learn if that's the case for three other female artists when she moderates a conversation about how identities intermingle with artwork for 92Y, the community center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Painter's two identities have not always coexisted well, in part because they call for "a different eye on the world," she said in a recent interview. The historian evaluates work with structured, clear criteria while the artist's opinion depends on taste.
"For many, many others in the various art worlds, the market is what sets up questions of excellence," Painter said. "Excellent art is art that sells for very high prices. That is not my taste."
The artist studied painting in art school — she earned a bachelor's degree in the discipline from Rutgers University in 2009, and two years later completed an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. Lately, though, she has incorporated drawing, text, collage and graphic design to create artist's books, works created in the form of a book. She called artist's books "a hybrid of my former life and my present life."
Many self-portraits and pieces documenting Painter's history fill her portfolio. She makes art for herself, she said. Her 2016 book, "Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over," was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It details her journey as a first-time art student in her 60s.
"Old" doesn't scare Painter. She followed in the footsteps of her mother, Dona Irvin, who published the book "I Hope I Look That Good When I'm That Old" about coming to terms with her age in 2002. Painter's age comprises a large part of her identity, she said, and she's found that it has conflicted with another part of herself: Blackness.
'Iconography of Blackness'
Painter has explored Blackness as both an artist and a historian. Her research on Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women's rights activist, led her to explore art. But Painter struggles to identify with what she calls "the current iconography of Blackness."
"When you think Black and the imagery that comes up, it's young people, and I am not young," Painter said. "People who were coming up in a moment of upheaval like 2020 experience it differently from people in my generation, who already lived through this in the '60s and '70s. Generation means that I'm in a different place with my Blackness from the ideas that are circulating now."
In her past life as an academic, Painter explored historic Black trailblazers and stories. Her research on Sojourner Truth culminated in a book, "Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol," that won the nonfiction prize from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association in 1997. Her 2010 book "The History of White People," a New York Times bestseller, delves into the invention of race and the development of Western civilization. She also directed the African-American Studies program at Princeton University from 1997 to 2000.
Despite her relatively recent transition into the art world, the board of directors for MacDowell, an artists' residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, unanimously elected Painter as chairwoman this year. She had created art as a MacDowell fellow twice in the past decade.
In her first year as chair, the board voted to drop "colony" from MacDowell's name. Painter said staff questioned the name MacDowell Colony many times — it's had the same name since 1907 — but the conversation reached a tipping point as Black Lives Matter movements this year called attention to racist symbols and nomenclature persisting across the nation.
"The meaning has changed over time," Painter said. " 'Colony' goes to meanings of exclusivity, of imperialism, of domination, so there are a lot of negative connotations attached to the word 'colony' now that the staff bridled against."
Painter,the scholar of Black history, responded to the tumultuous events of 2020 with artwork. In February, she was an artist-in-residence in a villa provided by the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, Italy, where she and her husband nearly got stuck. They fled Italy just before President Donald Trump closed the border to travelers returning to the U.S. at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her luggage contained her latest creation: "American Whiteness Since Trump," a 28-page artist's book that's now on display for the New York-based James Fuentes Online gallery. That linked her two identities; it served as an update to "The History of White People," which she wrote when President Barack Obama was in office.
Painter said Trump brought white nationalism with him to the White House after his election in 2016. She read over and over that the hidden meaning behind his "Make America Great Again" campaign was "Make America White Again."
"Trump really changed the meanings of American whiteness," Painter said. "I knew that I had to update 'The History of White People,' but now I needed to update it in the way that I work, that is to say visually with text."
She followed that with another artist's book, "From Slavery to Freedom," which picks up where the previous book ends. It closes with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the poem often called the "Black National Anthem."
Painter plans to keep singing through her art. She has completed a three-page artist's book about knitting socks for a friend, for an anthology made up of Black women's work during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also plans to publish an essay on the expressionist painter Alma Thomas.
Painter is also is working on a piece about the Holocaust. It focuses on Juliusz Feuerman, who kept a diary about his time living in a Jewish ghetto in Stanisławów, Poland, during World War II. It began as a written work, but now Painter will include drawings, one of which will depict a map of the ghetto. Like her career, her work is ever-evolving.