Saturday, August 18, 2018


     Recently I went on a writer's retreat in Gulfport, Florida, a town on Boca Ciega Bay just 20 minutes from my house in St. Petersburg. A one-woman writer's retreat, that is.  For one week I cut myself off entirely from family and friends --  even from Facebook -- and just wrote. The retreat was made possible by a friend who lent me her place in exchange for walking her dog and feeding her cat while she was up north for a week visiting her mom. She once had been my editor when we both lived in New York City. Her house is in Gulfport, a town that prides itself on being weird.
     During the week of my writer's staycation I was extremely productive, writing at times 8 hours a day (I am working on a mystery, my first work of fiction). My dog-walking chore gave my day structure. Most mornings we went to Stella's on Beach Boulevard where we sat at an outside table, me enjoying a breakfast sandwich with a cup of coffee, Banjo savoring the doggie treat and water bowl the staff provided. One day, in the Gabber, a local free weekly newspaper, I read that the Senior Center down the street was offering a 12-week Drawing and Painting class.
     I signed up.
     Why did I decide to take the painting class, the first ever in my life? Maybe because it was free (although the art supplies are costing me). Maybe because I wanted some excuse to keep going back to Gulfport (although I often met and still meet my editor-friend at SumitrA, a popular laid-back coffee & tea place on Beach Boulevard). Maybe because I just thought it would be fun.
      I really wasn't sure why I suddenly had an itch to do something visual.
      "Cross-training," a fellow writer said when I told her about taking the class. Yes, of course, that was it.  Like walking the dog, art class was giving me a break from writing, a chance to exercise a new skill, a counterpoint to flexing my writing muscles.
     Soon after I returned home from my writer's staycation, the wisdom of my decision to take the art class was reinforced by the oddest coincidence. My local library informed me that a book I had requested weeks before had finally come in. Touted in O, The Oprah Magazine, the book had a long waiting list. I had wanted to read it because it seemed a good topic for this blog which focuses on creativity and aging. Now in light of my decision to "cross-train," the book's subject matter had taken on even more significance for me. The title?
     Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over
     The author -- Nell Painter -- certainly was starting over. She had spent the bulk of her life not in art studios but in libraries and classrooms. She's an historian. And not just any historian. A world-renown historian with a PhD from Harvard and a professorship at Princeton and a whole stack of books to her name, including...
Southern History Across the Color Line by Nell Irvin PainterStanding at Armageddon by Nell Irvin Painter
and also...
Creating Black Americans by Nell Irvin PainterSojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
and the New York Times bestseller, The History of White People:

   So why go back to earn more degrees at age 64?
   In her memoir, Painter explains it all -- and then some. With jaw-dropping honesty, some truly off-beat descriptions (she compares art supply stores to vaginas for starters) and laser-sharp observations about the people who inhabit the world of easels and canvases, Painter takes us on her journey -- both external and internal -- of being "old in art school."  A journey, she points out, made financially possible thanks to "Saintly Husband Glenn" who still was working as a mathematics professor at Rutgers and could support her.
    Painter gives us a crash course on how art is made, conceptualized and promoted. We have a ringside seat as she tangles with her fellow classmates and teachers about What is Art and Who is a Real Artist. I read her book with my laptop close at hand so I could use Google images to see the work of the myriad of artists she references -- those approved by "The Art World" and those who in her view have not gotten their proper due. I learned about crits, about the widespread practice of appropriation in art these days, about transcription and about how not to get hung up on looking to others for validation. 
    Painter's friends tried to talk her out of going to art school. They told her she didn't need a degree to do art. She disagreed. Who would take her seriously unless she engaged in "formal study" and earned a degree?  (Spoken like a true daughter of academia where titles are permanently attached to its denizens' names.) So Painter attended Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University for three years and then the Rhode Island School of Design (the second most prestigious graduate school  for the arts in the country after Yale) for two more.
      At Rutgers, Painter tried to fit in with her younger classmates, even changing the way she dressed (donning cowboy boots, but holding the line at getting a tattoo). In Providence, she tried to move beyond her "twentieth-century eyes" and forget about her research training in history, concentrating on process over substance in her art. She tried to create art that operated in a space beyond history -- all the while fighting the very real historical battles of racism, sexism and ageism.
       She tried and tried and tried but was continually plagued with self doubt.
       Art school, she discovered, was brutal.
       A female teacher told her she "couldn't draw, couldn't paint." A male teacher told her she would "never be an artist." These art teachers didn't believe she would ever be an Artist with a Capital A because even though she produced a dizzying amount of work, she didn't focus on her art exclusively.
       They had a point. As she enter graduate school, for example, she was still busy editing the final proofs for THWP, as she called her New York bestseller. She couldn't attend the RISD's painters' kick-off barbecue because she was in Durham, North Carolina, for the opening of her archive in the John Hope Franklin Center in Duke University Library. She postponed the meeting with the second reader of her thesis (a requirement for graduation) because she had to be at the Harvard commencement to receive a Centennial Medal, "an honor of a lifetime."
      Painter also had some serious personal demands on her time that prevented her from doing art full-time. Not from Saintly Husband Glenn -- he gave her all the freedom and support she needed. But as an only child, her aging parents were another matter. She was constantly rushing out to Oakland where they lived to deal with her mother's illness and death, her father's chronic depression and eventually her father's need to move East, closer to her.
       Painter didn't have time to be an artist with a Capital A.
       In the end, however, she prevailed. Painter, the painter, prevailed. Her friends had told her, "Keep on. Keep on making art. Keeping on making your art." And she did.
      "I'm an artist who lives and works in Newark, New Jersey," she writes at the end of Old in Art School, providing us with an update of what happened to her after art school, "an artist whose other -- not, as I once said 'former' -- lives as an historian and as a daughter are still crucial parts of me. I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist, not a hot anybody with a young anybody's future before me. I know the value of doing my work, my work, and keeping at it. I do keep at it -- in the pleasure of the process of making the art only I can make.
      Serious artist? Yes. I make and show my work regularly. Professional artist? Yes. I get paid for my work. An Artist artist? Probably not, probably never, because I still do other things. Do I miss not being An Artist artist? Yes, a little. But not enough to live my life any other way."
        Painter got her degrees -- a BFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and  MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design -- but she got a lot more out of being "old in art school." She learned to listen much harder to the voice within herself.
       My own foray into an art education is far more modest than Painter's. Unlike her, I am not looking to art to provide me with a second career. I am merely cross-training.
       Yet I can see how learning to paint -- even the most basic lessons like mine are -- can change the way you look at the world. After I have squeezed blobs of paint on my palette in class, I walk outside and see cobalt blue skies and Phthalo green grass. After layering for paint with Dioxazine purple for my picture of grapes in class, I notice the dark and light shades on the rounded fruit in my fruit bowl. I am beginning to experience the world visually in ways I never had before.
       After only two classes, I painted my very first piece. Everyone in the class did. Our subject matter was whales. The teacher gave us all a printout of a painting of a whale lob-tailing its flukes out of the water. She first showed us how to sketch a copy of what we saw onto our canvases. Then she instructed us on how to mix and apply our paints -- cobalt blues, pure blacks, titanium whites. For the splashing water, we first were instructed to paint only with water and then dab paint into the wet spots. My splashes didn't look right, so I tried to rub them away with a piece of paper toweling. As I rubbed, however, I found that I liked the effect the smearing was creating and went with it.
     At the next class, the teacher had us pick out what color mat we would like to use to display our paintings. One by one, using our chosen mat,  we showed our "framed" picture in front of the class. Each one of us had completed the assignment a little differently. Different taperings of the whale's body. Different finishes to its flukes. Different ways to show the splashes of water surrounding the tail. Different colored "frames."
     "You've each made it your own," the teacher pointed out.
       I felt a bit giddy when my turn came to be applauded by the class for my feeble effort. Not because I got some outside validation -- we clapped for everyone -- but because of what I perceived within myself: I felt like a young student again, starting from scratch and eager to learn.
     When I got home, I pulled out the canvas and showed it to Saintly Husband Carl. "Can you tell what this is?" I asked. "A whale's tail," he said. Yes, exactly, I thought, my whale's tale.
     At the next class, I showed the teacher Painter's book, suggesting that she might want to read it. She took one look at the title and turned away. "We're not old," she said.
     No, not in art class anyway.