Reinventing yourself: a conversation with Dr. Nell Irvin Painter

Artist Nell Irvin Painter (Photo by Joanna Morrissey.)

What does it mean to reinvent yourself? Dr. Nell Irvin Painter will address this question and read from her newest book at the Northwest African American Museum Monday July 9 at 7 p.m. as a part of the WriteOn! Author Series.

Painter is a historian, artist and author of several critically acclaimed books including the New York Times best seller “The History of White People.” Her latest book is a departure from her previous work, crossing from history in the broader sense to her own personal history. It’s called “Old in Art School, A Memoir of Starting Over” and chronicles her journey of doing just that.

At age 64, Painter retired from her successful career as an academic and decided to go to Art School. In 2009 she received her BFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts and in 2011 her MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. Since then she has shown her work in six solo shows and over a dozen group shows.

Though she recounts meeting a teacher who told her that she could never be a “real” artist, she has found her voice as both a historian and an artist, learning to embrace all of who she is and that is as real as it gets.

Reagan Jackson: What prompted you to become an artist?

Nell Painter: The short answer is I wanted to and I could. I am very lucky, a very fortunate person also a grateful person to be able to pursue two great loves of my life. I love being a historian. I still think like a historian and some of my art is inspired by history, but I also wanted the freedom to disregard the archive, you know, just to make up fiction.

RJ: How do your past and current careers intersect?

NP: They intersect largely in artist books. So you’ll find my two artist books on my website nellpainter.com under the artist tab and they are Art History by Nell Painter Volume 27 and Art History by Nell Painter Volume 28. But it took me a long time, it took me years and years to be able to find a way to think of myself as both at the same time. Maybe not at the same time but both, ’cause in art school I thought I had to be a former historian, but I don’t.

RJ: Why do you think that is? In terms of it taking that time to be able to embrace your multiplicities?

NP: Because writing history and doing research and respecting the archive is really respecting historical truth and not being able to recast it the way I want and also being academic. I mean I am academic, there is no ‘academicker person’ than me. And all that was antithetical to the art I encountered in art school and my teaching in art school

RJ: What are you looking forward to sharing with Seattle?

NP: I have really enjoyed talking with people. Actually I have done rather little reading. I mean I can read, but I’ve been fortunate in that the people I talk to… and I really enjoy having people asking me questions like you’re doing now…and everybody has a different take. So my interviewer up here in Saranac Lake is an artist so he asked me art questions and one of the first things that attracted him was the way I talked about color which is in artist colors. He really liked that and wanted me to talk about that. Other people have wanted to know how it could be that I could be so pathetic as an art student when I should have known better. People usually want to know what my advice would be to people that want to start over. So that is something that comes up again and again and I do have answers for that. But what has really struck me is all the different ways that people have found in and out of my book. You know that people who ask me questions and talk to me. Well sometimes people say well are there questions I particularly want to answer and I say no. What I enjoy are all the different ways in and out of the book.

If you want to hear more from this incredible human being, join us at 7 p.m. Monday July 9 at the Northwest African American Museum. I will be her discussant.

Correction: An earlier version of story incorrectly identified Saranac Lake as a different location. This has been corrected.

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