This Historian Gave Up an Ivy League Professorship

Historians in the News
tags: Nell Painter

Nell Painter rose to the height of success as a historian. When she gave up her Princeton University professorship to re­invent herself as an artist at age 64, pursuing a B.F.A. at Rutgers University,she nursed high ambitions for her new career.

She hoped to become a serious painter, just as she had been a serious historian — the leader of scholarly associations and the author of notable books like Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (W.W. Norton, 1996) and The History of White People (Norton, 2010). To achieve that, she dreamed of attending graduate school at the elite Yale School of Art, within a university that years earlier had offered her a chaired professorship and awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Yale’s art school flat-out rejected Painter’s application.

That dismissal "measured the miles separating the world of art from the world of history," Painter writes in a forthcoming book about her painful yet rewarding late-life metamorphosis, Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint).

She ended up at her second choice, the Rhode Island School of Design, earning an M.F.A. in 2011. Her memoir of those years is many things: an appraisal of artists living and dead, a hymn to her home state of New Jersey, a meditation on her parents’ deaths, a reflection on the travails of leading a scholarly association. It’s also a sharp critique of the teaching methods and social environment in M.F.A. programs.

Painter, now 75, spoke with The Chronicle about her transformation and her life since.

You write in your book that your motivation for going to art school was partly "freedom from Truth." Tell us why you wanted that.

In history, the larger question was always, Is this representative? Is this person, or this event, or this phenomenon, reflective of a larger truth? Does it stand for more than itself? And in art, it doesn’t have to. For me that was very freeing, because I don’t stand for a larger group. Obviously I am a black woman, and my body and my experience in life reflect that part of my identity. But there’s so much else about me that doesn’t fit. So as an artist, I don’t have to fit. I don’t have to be a good black person. I don’t have to ask myself, What does this mean for the race, or for black women? ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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