An evening with artist and author Nell Painter

Sofiya Yusina:

As I walked into the Firestone Room, I saw before myself the renowned writer and artist Nell Painter in the flesh. It was such an honor that we got the opportunity to talk with her about her career as a historian and writer and a professor at Princeton University and then her lived experiences in art school.

I was very excited about this dinner as I sincerely enjoyed reading Nell Painter’s Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. It comes as no surprise that Nell Painter’s writing style is very engaged and lively, allowing me to completely immerse myself in the story. I found myself thinking about the book in my spare time. One particular topic that caught my attention time and time again was that Nell Painter referred to her own preferences for art as “twentieth century.” Based on the context during which she used those words to describe her preferences, it was clear that her instructors used that descriptive characteristic as a disapproving remark on Nell Painter’s tendencies as an artist. However, I often find myself preferring earlier art styles to the more modern (or, should I say, postmodern) art styles. Yet, I realized that Nell found value in challenging her prior preferences and “de-academizing” herself as she has said during our conversation.

During our dinner, we got the opportunity to directly communicate with Nell and listen to her wise words born of experience and years of work and dedication. One topic of our discussion especially stood out to me. It was our conversation about imposter syndrome and how even she, who has accomplished so much success in her other endeavors, struggled with feelings of inadequacy in art school. This was especially hard as some of her instructors explicitly criticized her artwork and questioned her artistic talents. Yet, despite these challenges, Nell Painter persisted in her endeavors, inspiring me to do the same.

Overall, this was a very rewarding experience, and I am truly grateful for this opportunity!

Cassy James:

Like many artists, I have often struggled with a terrible fear of time: running out of it, running into it, losing it somehow in the forest of life. So I found Nell Painter’s book, Old in Art School, to be incredibly reassuring. Here was an accomplished artist who had defied the odds of time and redefined herself without apologies, without regrets. I was thrilled that we would have a chance to meet her over dinner—I wanted to ask her how she had done it. How had she overcome the critics, the naysayers, her own self doubt?

I didn’t let anyone tell me ‘no,’ she answered. Her words rang in my head long after the dinner was over. Maybe it wasn’t time that I feared, after all. Maybe it was the people who seemed to control it: the producers, the agents, the publishers, the gatekeepers who could stop my dreams in their tracks. So I propped Nell Painter’s book on my desk; I still glance at it, occasionally, when I need to remind myself that there is always time, so long as I don’t take no for an answer.