Alum Nell Irvin Painter on her transition from academia to the art studio

Mother of reinvention

By Lisa Intrabartola

Plenty of retirees fly south for the winter, enjoy a few leisurely classes at the library, and indulge in the art of puttering.

That’s just not Nell Irvin Painter’s style.

Instead of slowing down after her 2005 retirement from Princeton University, the renowned historian, celebrated author, and professor reinvented herself, racking up two more degrees and embarking on a second career as an artist.

Painter’s late-career change didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.

“I was an art major at Berkeley for a little while, but I got a ‘C’ in sculpture, which I deserved because I didn’t do the work,” says Painter, 72, who laughed about her first experience as an art student in the early 1960s.

“I was always one of those people who was a good student, who showed up on time and did the work. But I thought there was another system for art when I was young. I thought if you had talent as an artist, then you didn’t have to do any work.”

When she enrolled in Mason Gross half a century later, the nontraditional BFA’s view of art-making had shifted.

“At Mason Gross I showed up, did the work, and went the distance,” says Painter, who after earning her undergraduate degree in 2009 went on to receive an MFA degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011.

Painter’s decision to revisit her early passion was cemented by her mother’s own late-in-life re-creation.

“Back in the ’80s when my mother retired, she said she wanted to write books. So she started writing books,” Painter says of her mother, Dona Irvin, a former public school administrator. Irvin published two books before her death in 2009.

“What she showed me is you can do something new in maturity,” Painter says.

Once Painter set her mind to finishing what she’d started all those years ago, the choice of where to accomplish it was an obvious one.

“Mason Gross is part of Rutgers, and I love Rutgers,” she says, citing Barbara Madsen, Stephen Westfall, and Hanneline Røgeberg among the Mason Gross faculty whose instruction she most valued. “Rutgers has a lot of female power—experienced women in the know who really protected me and were generous with me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

The second act

Instructing an accomplished professor of American history was a bit intimidating, says Røgeberg, who had Painter as a student in drawing, painting, and independent study.

However, Røgeberg says Painter did not expect preferential treatment.

“She was utterly under the radar. There were no favors called in at all,” says Røgeberg of Painter, who was “anonymous” among her peers.

Painter often put forth four times the effort of her classmates, says Røgeberg. But being entrenched in a systematic approach to education for decades made finding her voice as an artist challenging.
Painter’s Self-Portrait 12, colored ink and collage on paper, 12" x 12".
Courtesy of Nell Irvin Painter.

“It should be an equation: hard work equals inspired idea,” explains Røgeberg of Painter’s evolution as an artist. “There is something about learning how to accept that arriving at something truthful can be nonlinear. There was no question she had latent gifts as an artist. It was a matter of catching up to that creative side,” and Painter did it, Røgeberg says.

In her second act as an artist, Painter has cultivated a respected body of work, including two ongoing series: NO Self-Portraits, which actually features dozens of abstract paintings of herself, and Odalisque Atlas, which explores sex, beauty, and slavery through a mix of digital and manual pieces. Her solo and group shows have been exhibited at a variety of galleries, and she serves as Montclair State University Creative Research Center's Virtual Artist-in-Residence.

Still, Painter’s natural inclination to infuse her bold, collage-like pieces with subject matter and an historical perspective earned her criticism early in her art career—so much so that she initially considered her academic background more hindrance than help.

“One of the fundamentals of painting is the distinction between fine art and illustration, or design. [I was taught that] illustration is very, very bad. What you see is at the service of something else. Fine art comes out of ‘the culture of art’ and is purely visual,” she says. “So whenever I would use subject matter, my wrist would be slapped for veering off into illustration.”

But “after few years of groping,” Painter managed to successfully infuse her visual art with narrative in her latest tome, Art History Volume XXVII.

The book reexamines the Harlem Renaissance (1912–1943) through Painter’s words and original pieces—collages featuring the work of the Harlem Renaissance artists.

She’s also at work on an autobiography.

Old in Art School is inspired by all the questions Painter has answered about her Mason Gross experience.

“I wanted to come to terms with it myself,” she says. “I have a very visceral approach to art and writing. It’s what I call my reptilian brain, and it pushes me around. When the writing machine or painting machine revs me up, it wakes me up and dictates and tells me, ‘Here! Write this!’ or ‘Paint this!’

“This book is like, ‘You’ve got to write me!’ ”

Posted Spring 2015