Nell Painter

by Lisa Bramen | April 2019

Photograph by Ben Stechschulte


A historian turned artist finds peace in the Adirondacks

ell Painter was born into segregation at the Houston Hospital for Negroes in 1942. If her family hadn’t relocated to Oakland, California, when she was a few weeks old, Texas’s Jim Crow laws would have dictated where she could go to school, the library, the pool. Family trips in the countryside would be out of the question—too dangerous. Not so out West, Painter recalls in her recent memoir, Old in Art School. “My parents drove us around California with the abandon of southerners finally allowed the freedom of the out-of-doors that had been denied them in the South.”

Now retired from a distinguished career as a Princeton University historian and author of a number of influential books, Painter has traveled the world. In the summers, when her New Jersey home is too hot and muggy for a woman raised on brisk Bay Area breezes, it’s to the Adirondacks that she and her husband, Glenn Shafer, retreat. In their New Russia living room, in front of a picture window framing their shady yard, she recounts how they discovered the Adirondack Park.

Until 2004, she says, the couple had a vacation home on a lake in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. But hostile neighbors soured them on the area. Painter attributes the discord to class differences and locals’ general disdain for outsiders, but she can’t help but imagine the color of her skin played a part in their animosity.

When she described her neighbor troubles to her former Princeton colleague, writer Russell Banks, he said, “‘Why don’t you come over to the Adirondacks?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Gosh, we don’t know anything about the Adirondacks.’”

Keene, where Banks and his wife, poet Chase Twichell, live part-time, has attracted artists, writers and philosophers since at least the 19th century. Asher Durand, Winslow Homer, William James and Sigmund Freud are among the luminaries who have spent time in the picturesque High Peaks town. And though the Adirondacks is hardly more racially diverse than northern Vermont, Painter says she feels comfortable here.

Along with Banks and Twichell, Painter befriended other creative and intellectual types, including artist Frank Owen—whose wife, Realtor Martha Lee Owen, helped them find their house in nearby New Russia. Having a circle of local friends and friendly neighbors is nice, but with busy academic careers Painter and Shafer—a professor and former dean at Rutgers Business School—often prefer to have quiet time to themselves. In the Adirondacks, Painter says, “our social life is not so dense that it becomes a burden. The people I know, I know because I want to know them.”

The Adirondacks also became a refuge after she retired, in 2005, and made the unconventional decision to go to art school, first at Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University and then in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Not content to just dabble in painting and drawing, she says, “I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian.”

It was a bold aspiration for someone who has received nearly every accolade in her field, including honorary doctorate degrees from Yale and four other universities. “I went for 100-percent intensity,” she says. “It never occurred to me in the beginning that there would be other ways.”

Painter was neither the first in her family to go to college nor the first to become a professor. Her maternal grandfather taught at Straight University in New Orleans. Her father, Frank Irvin, worked in the chemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley, and her mother, Dona, worked for the Oakland public school district after Painter left home. Dona Irvin wrote two books after retirement—a history of the Oakland church they attended and a memoir called I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old.

Though Painter had always enjoyed drawing and was briefly an art major at Berkeley, she switched to anthropology after a C in sculpture class convinced her she wasn’t naturally gifted. “I earned my C,” she admits. “I didn’t do a damn thing. I thought, Oh, if you have talent….” Then, a study-abroad year in Bordeaux, France, sparked her interest in history.

Another international experience, studying African history and teaching French in Ghana for two years in the late 1960s, had a profound influence on her perspective. “Being a black American, I didn’t realize until I got out of the United States that I had taken all my bearings from race,” she says. In a majority-black country, “I started seeing class and I started seeing issues of development—economic development—and international politics started making a lot of sense economically. So that really made a difference in how I wrote about the United States.”

After getting a PhD in American history from Harvard, Painter taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before becoming a professor of American history at Princeton.

Her books, written under the name Nell Irvin Painter, often focus on lesser-known or misunderstood events and people in African-American history. Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996) shatters myths about the iconic  abolitionist. Her last scholarly work, The History of White People (2010), which she finished while at Mason Gross, explores the shifting concept of race and what constituted “whiteness” across world history.

Old in Art School, released in June 2018, was Painter’s first attempt at writing memoir. It was challenging for someone more accustomed to examining the lives of long-dead people than her own motivations and insecurities. “It was so hard. It was so hard,” she says, laughing. “I was surprised that I could do it.”

She was used to achieving success through a combination of hard work and intellect, so the shock of art school was how much personal image and style—including age—seemed to matter. Despite having inherited her mother’s gift for aging well, Painter was still decades older than her classmates, and she thinks that affected how they and professors perceived her work. She also felt held back by what she called her “20th-century eyes,” unable to appreciate the “incoherence” of the  work her younger classmates were creating. She wanted to make art that had meaning, that brought in her deep knowledge and historical perspective, qualities that didn’t seem to be in vogue.

The first year at RISD was especially hard, as she juggled grieving for her mother and caring for her elderly father, promoting The History of White People—including arm-wrestling Stephen Colbert in an appearance on The Colbert Report—and graduate school, where her professors were often dismissive of her and her work.

That summer, away from Rhode Island, she ensconced herself in her New Russia studio, a converted rabbit hutch, to paint, free from the critical eyes of her professors and fellow students. She writes, “By the end of the Adirondack summer, I had found myself again, my real, pre-graduate-school me, I mean.”

With the perspective of time, she feels that her art-school ambitions were “misguided” for someone of her age and obligations. Now, she says, “I make the work that satisfies me.”

Painter often experiments with collage and digital manipulation, frequently incorporating text and self-portraiture. And while she says the Adirondacks was indispensable as a place to unwind from the stress of her studies, you’ll find no traces of Adirondack style or motifs in her work.

“Mason Gross’s painting studios dis­couraged another kind of painting that thrives in the Adirondacks where Glenn and I spend summers,” she writes in Old in Art School. “The mountains foster realistic painting by the picturesque plein air painters in their floppy hats and artists’ smocks you see every summer setting up their easels and paints beside breathtaking lakes. Their nature scenes are lovely evocations of an imposing landscape, handsome to behold and widely collected in summer cottages called camps.”

But while High Peaks scenes don’t appear in her art, it’s clear that spending time in the Adirondacks has, like California, France and Africa, influenced Painter’s thinking. This place has become another part of her story.

In her memoir, she compares groping her way through a painting to “standing on Hurricane Mountain … and looking all around for the next peak to attempt—or, more likely, how in the hell to get back down.”   

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