A Visit to Nell Painter In Her Newark Studio

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Nell Painter (the painter formerly known as the historian Nell Irvin Painter), author of The History of White People, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, and Creating Black Americans and the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University) lives and works in Newark, New Jersey. Her most recent book, Old in Art School recounts her experience of returning to school—in her sixties—to earn a BFA and MFA in painting. Old in Art School was published in June of this year and is already in its fourth printing.

 I visited Nell in her Newark studio in early October, 2018.

 So here we are, Nell, thank you for doing this.
You’re very welcome

 Your book Old in Art School was recently published. I was delighted that you dedicated your book in part to the Newark Art Community.
Indeed, with pleasure.

 Can you talk a bit about how we met and the importance of Newark’s art community to your life and work?
The importance of Newark’s art community for me—super important—because it really is my main art community. Supposedly in graduate school, the people I was in graduate school with—at The Rhode Island School of Design—we were eight—supposedly they would be my community, we would stay together and I would learn more from them than I would from my teachers, and we’d be a band of brothers and sisters, and we would be together and nourish each other. For me—this. did. not. happen. I found that in Newark, actually as soon as I graduated because I had a years residency at Aferro. I had actually met you and Victor before, I don’t remember exactly, but I remember when I was an undergraduate at Mason Gross, seeing you coming down the hall toward the Brodsky Center where you were going to acquire some prints for the [Aljira] Auction and you were so elegant, you were really striking—I didn’t know who you were then, but I was very impressed.

Oh! Well, thank you for that, Nell (smile)
So, I’m curious to know what the response has been to Old in Art School. And have you been surprised by any of it.
I have been surprised by the enthusiastic reply to Old in Art School. Last I heard—which was about three weeks ago—we are now talking in October. The book was published in mid June and it was in its fourth printing. Which is absolutely amazing.

That’s amazing.
And once that printing of 7,000 books is sold, it will go into paper. So, this is quite amazing. My agent circulated the book very widely. It got turned down a thousand times. I, who am an experienced author, my last book was a best seller, all my books are in print, I’m reliable as an author. Nobody wanted to publish it. Memoir is considered a soft form of writing and it was a memoir in which the Black person is not explaining race, or telling you sad stories of oppression. Our culture wants Black artists, that includes writers, to say things about the American condition. And that’s not what I was saying. So, this small publisher in Berkeley, Counterpoint, accepted it—with a miniscule advance. When my agent told me about this I said, oh, don’t bother, I’ve never heard of them and the money is terrible. And she said—no, no, no, wait. We’ve had experience with this publisher and they do very good things.

And she was absolutely right. People have written to me. People come up to me. I’ve had so many people read the book in such different ways. So, for instance, some people appreciate the way I describe colors in the world using artist colors. Some people like the way I talk about parenting my parents. Some people appreciate the feeling of being invisible. Everybody appreciates the way older artists or older students get dismissed as unimportant. So there were lots and lots of ways in.

Writing and now promoting Old in Art School must have been all consuming.
Writing and promoting Old in Art School has been all consuming. We are sitting with the only new art I’ve made so far in 2018—and they’re small pieces, because I was working within the book’s timeconstraints. And, I’ve discovered I have a new vocation as an author of creative nonfiction.

 Wow! And that has to do with my next question—how do you balance all of this?
Very badly.

Do you sleep?
I do sleep, but not always well. Partly its because I’m an old person and old people don’t sleep very well. And partly it’s because of the condition of our country. So, the prints that are here behind us—these are called Année Infâme—An infamous year. The motif is 2016. It’s been hard. It’s been really hard.

Yes, it’s amazing how it’s had an effect on us all, as individuals, psychologically. It’s like a group nervous breakdown.
Yes, Yes.

I wanted to say that for me—your recounting the stress of going to school at age 64 and braving a new world at the same time—was affecting. You were dealing with your mother’s illness followed by her death and then your father’s . . .

Yes. And my father’s depression and his death.

 So what I want to know is this the most personal book, the most open you’ve been in print, ever?
Oh, absolutely. This is the first time I have written—no I have written a small autobiographical essay in Telling Histories, in which I am the oldest Black woman historian, in which I talk about how I came to be the person I am as an historian. But this is how I am as a person, I am being as an artist. The other one doesn’t have anything about my family.

Did you keep a journal?
Yes. I had to.

 You knew, starting out at Mason Gross you were keeping…
Yes. Because so many people said, ahhhhh! What is it going to be like?!

This is something I’ve read in the book, I’ve heard you speak about it, but I’d love for you to talk about it, maybe articulate it in a different way. What is the definition of your “lying 20th century eyes”?
“My lying 20th century eyes” was the aesthetic that I came into art school with. That is, my taste has formed in the 20th century. I was for a while an art major at Berkeley. I was aware of artists. One of my favorite artists was Charles White. Another favorite artist was Ben Shahn. Another favorite artist was Elizabeth Catlett. And all of them were 20th century modernists—figurative painters and printers whose visual work had a discursive meaning—talked to the world and talked back to the world in a very engaged way that is not right now. One of my RISD teachers talked about the importance of “right nowness” in one’s art, and I realized that my taste was not “right now” taste. My way of working, which at first stressed craft, legibility, meaning—that is discursive meaning as opposed to visual meaning—all of that was baggage I carried out of the 20th century. So, one of my tasks as an artist is to loosen up—to make a mess and to make work that doesn’t necessarily have discursive meaning but draws me just because of the way it looks. And because of the contentment I feel as I make it.

Nell, so, what subject matter does your work center around. And how has that evolved over the time you’ve been an artist, not a student.
Subject matter changes. So for instance, we’re sitting in the studio in my little gallery area with two drawings—the small pieces, and then digital collages, based on those drawings and the images and the ideas that inspired me, and the painter was Robert Motherwell. Robert Motherwell. I’ve always been interested in him because he both painted and wrote which is something I had always wanted to do. I was really discouraged from using writing or using text when I was in art school. But I always knew that I had more to say than what I could paint or draw. So Motherwell has been of interest to me for a long time. And in January 2016, Glenn and I went to Provincetown in Massachusetts, the end of the Cape, not the very end but in the corner—to eat oysters. Best oysters. They’re Wellfleet oysters. And they have a museum and they were showing some Motherwell paintings he made of the water splashing against the edge of his studio deck. I loved the movement of that. So, I made, gee, I made a whole bunch of drawings there inspired by his paintings. And then when I got back here, I worked on them with Photoshop and with color. And so, the lower ones [pointing] are the next generation. But you asked what inspired me and here it was paintings by Robert Motherwell. In terms of the grided sketches [here Nell refers to three large black and white digital collages on the studio walls] it was a commission for an opera and I decided what the subject matter should be and how it should be composed. For Année Infâme it was the politics of our time—but the process is stamp. A friend of mine, up in Plattsburgh, Diane Fine, a printmaker, inspired the process. Last summer 2018] she and a long time colleague of hers were in Newfoundland making rubber stamp drawings. She showed me how she did it, and I thought, oh man, that looks like so much fun. So she gave me some—actually plastic erasers—and I cut them up and colored them and stamped them myself. So it was Diane’s process plus the politics of our time. These [pointing] were inspired by a photograph of Serena Williams whose strength and movement has inspired me for a long time. I’ve made a lot of work around her and her body and her strength and her movement. And these are a series of linoprints that I hand colored based on a map in the archive I put together for Odalisque Atlas which is an ongoing series that’s inspired by the figure of the odalisque that comes out of The History of White People.

 Nell, you write in the book about your love of drawing. Is paper also an essential medium for you? Or is it just the process of mark making?
Paper really is—well it’s both. But making marks on paper is something that I like. Partly because it’s smaller so I can squeeze it in while working on my book. I can carry it around more easily. I don’t have to put it on stretcher bars. In fact I have done several unstretched canvas paintings. Some of them are even 60” x 60”, which is large for me. But the whole meaningful infrastructure of canvas and stretching on canvas is, right now—that’s just too heavy a load.

Do you see yourself painting on canvas again any time soon?
As I look forward, I don’t see myself having time. But, wait, let me rethink that. Last week I was on a Yaddo discussion, and a friend of mine, Letty Pogrebin said because her mother had died very early that she, Letty, always had the feeling—like for a quarter century—that she didn’t have any time. I thought, wow, that’s a terrible way to live. But in a sense, when my mother was dying, I felt unquestioningly, that I didn’t have enough time. But before that, and after that, even though I now have things stretching in front of me because people have asked me about next steps, and I’ve had to think about them, I see my time in blocks already assigned. So that’s a long way of saying I would love to make some big stuff again on canvas, especially stretching it out on the wall, gessoing it, and then painting freely. I can’t paint freely——with the whole body, on these small pieces of paper. So that is not part of the pleasure of working smaller and on paper. I would like to do that. I can’t see how to find the time to work large right now.

Now that Old in Art School is in its fourth printing  and I’m just signing a contract for the Korean edition, it’s time to think about another book. My agent and my publisher are saying, “well what are you going to do next.” I had been asked that so many times! I’ve been intrigued by and appalled by the conversation around Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting. And also intrigued and appalled by the ignorance of my colleagues at McDowell about Emmett Till. I thought, I want to do a personal artist’s book—I mean it’s not going to be called “Emmett Till and me” (laughs)—It’s going to be—I remember 1955, I remember Emmett Till, and I remember feeling that the rest of the country didn’t care. And then, looking back now, people are saying, “oh, that was a turning point—everybody knew, everybody was appalled, oh, it was awful, we realized how terrible it was. “We”—white people— “realized how terrible it was”—that’s not how I experienced it. And then there’s the whole question of this painting, which I have seen, which is a fantastic painting. It really is a masterpiece of painting. And the response of ignorant young people who I think didn’t realize that Emmett Till’s mother wanted the world to see what they had done to her son. So there’s that generational discussion and then there’s the question of who speaks for Black people. So all of that was sort of my Emmett Till.

But as I was talking to my agent about this, and about making an artist’s book and the pleasure I get now from working back and forth between image and text; we were talking about the royalties for The History of White People, and I said, you know I would love to do—and I had talked to them about this before—The History of White People for Dummies, Illustrated by the Artist. (Laughter all around). Exactly, we all burst out laughing. So, we’d talked about that before, there were questions with the previous publisher, which was W.W. Norton, but I’m thinking there’s something really different and here, 2016 has made a big difference between the original book, which was 2010, and now, which is 2018, because the Trump era has made white people white people, as opposed to being unmarked individuals and Americans. And so that said “yeah, yeah.” So, I have actually made an application for an artist residency to do this book. I would do it in the spring and then work on it in the summer. And I’m really looking forward to it.

So, where in this is a big canvas painting? Nowhere.

I’ve heard you mention the artist Robert Colescott on numerous occasions and saying he was kind of the North Store (or something similar) for your work. I wanted to know more about the ways in which you respond to his work.
Well, Robert Colescott, I call him my patron saint. So, he’s a figurative painter. He’s funny. Art history is throughout. And he has fantastic composition. He has weird perspective composition—his compositions have always intrigued me, how he put things together.

Following up on that. Is there another artist, contemporary or throughout art history who you respond to in a similar—love way?
Ummm, well you know it’s almost like who have I seen most recently. And, who have I seen most recently? Charline von Heyl. I just saw her show, which is fantastic. She is an abstract painter, but there’s a lot of narrative in her paintings. There’s a lot of layering, and there’s a lot of use of pattern. I’m a knitter, and I’ve finally learned how to start using my knitting in my work. And it’s been very hard, but, in her work, I see the patterning which is very attractive to me. And in this show she does use some figures but by and large she’s an abstract painter. And I guess when I was talking about Colescott’s composition, there’s something of the abstract in the way he uses space.

Well, it sounds like he’s your favorite artist of all time. Nobody comes close.
Yes. And he’s lasted as a favorite for a long time. I used to have a favorite—R.B. Kitaj. I used to love his paintings. And I don’t any more. I got tired of them.

Lastly, could you say something about your piece, Florida Self Portrait, that’s on the HarryLou shop and about your self portraiture in general.
I have been making self portraits for a long time. It started when I was at Mason Gross as an undergraduate.  I knew I was going to be a figurative painter, but I didn’t know how to paint dark skin. We didn’t have any dark skinned models, and nobody was telling me how to do it, though you need some special skills on account of how reflective dark skin is. So, I just started doing myself. And it actually got to be too hard to try to paint dark skin mimetically. Just too hard. And there’s too much cultural, historical overhead of—I mean if I were Kerry James Marshall, I could do it. But—he does not to it mimetically. He paints a flat black. But, you know, I was convenient as a model, so that’s how it got started. And then, I just love being able to do figurative drawings where I didn’t have to worry about what the model thought. And, they could all look different, as they do. You and Victor own two. I don’t know if you would know it’s the same person and throughout my studio here, there are several different kinds of self portraits. So, being able to work figuratively and not have to deal with the whole, sort of political economy of the black body and of how the model feels about the version. So, one part of that piece is my drawing of myself and then another part is simply an image that I took off the web that I just liked. It was Florida, with the palm trees and the light. So I put those two things together. It’s something that I love about working digitally—that I can put stuff together that doesn’t make any discursive sense. I needed that. I need to break away from wanting to make sense.

So you weren’t on a holiday in the Caribbean
No… :-)

And lastly, because I’m always curious, what are you currently reading?
Actually I am currently reading biographies because I’m on a PEN biographies prize panel. So I just finished a biography of two women who were responsible for turning the poetry of Emily Dickinson into print and before that I read a biography of Napoleon.

Oh My.
Nell, thank you. Thank you for doing this. It’s been wonderful.

Note: Subsequent to this interview, Nell agreed to add two additional works to the HarryLou WorksOnPaper Shop—both of which are illustrated in Old in Art School.

Bedside Collage 1, 2010
Colored ink, gouache, collage on paper
8.5 x 9 inches. Signed on back.
$1,500 | Visit our Shop to purchase.
Illustrated in Old in Art School

Florida Self Portrait, 2017
Inkjet print on paper, ed. 1
8.5 x 11 inches. Signed on back.
$850 | Visit our Shop to purchase.

Lake Clear Drawing 1, 2010
Colored ink, gouache and acrylic on Yupo
11 x 14 inches. Signed on back.
Illustrated in Old in Art School
$1,500 | Visit our Shop to purchase.

Photography by Art Paxton

Cicely Cottingham