This week’s #RespectYourElders feature shows you can follow your dreams at any time of life. Nell Irvin Painter (born 1942) recently published a memoir titled “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over” about the time she went back to art school — after spending 40 years in a completely different career.
For several decades, Painter had a successful career as a historian focusing on the southern United States during the 19th century. In 1964, she earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. Then, she received a Master of Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, and another M.A. and a doctorate from Harvard University. She’s also received honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Wesleyan University and Yale University.
Painter authored several books, articles and essays focusing on African-American history, including “Creating Black Americans,” “Standing at Armageddon” and “The History of White People.” She’s also held positions on various boards and associations, including the Southern Historical Association, the Society of American Historians and the Association of Black Women Historians.
In 1988, she became a professor of American history at Princeton University, where she’s currently professor emeritus. She also was the director of Princeton’s Program in Art History for several years. She retired in 2009, and decided to pursue a new career path.
After retiring from Princeton, Painter first took various art classes for fun, but realized she wanted to turn art into a full-time career. She enrolled in the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers to earn her Bachelor of Fine Arts, and went on to the Rhode Island School of Design for her Master of Fine Arts. Today, Painter is a successful, professional artist. Her works include drawings, collages, prints and more. Last year, the Minneapolis Institute of Art acquired her digital and silkscreen print series “You Say This Can’t Really Be America,” after it was shown at the Smith College Art Museum.
In an interview with NPR, Painter offered words of encouragement for older adults considering a second career: You can do anything you set your mind to, but be prepared for challenges, too.
“There’s so many ways to do new things. You don’t have to do it whole hog like I did. There’s so many ways. Yes, you can do it, but also know: It can be very sobering. Because being old in our society — it’s not for sissies.”