Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over

37774050Really mixed reviews on Goodreads for Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Irvin Painter

But I quite enjoyed it.

This is Painter’s memoir of going to art school to get a BA and then a BFA after a long and successful career as a historian and academic. Seriously, she has honorary doctorates from Yale and company.

I can’t imagine how humbling it must’ve been to start over at the bachelor level.

And her age—she’s in her 60s—is a main theme in the book, as you might expect.

Things I loved:

  • Her quirky style. She refers to professors as Teacher, like, “Teacher Irma told me…” I found it weird at first, but honestly, it’s handy.
  • Her explorations of what, exactly, is considered art. And the economic machinations that determine which artists get shown in galleries and, therefore, museums. Fascinating insight into a world I know nothing about.
  • Her explorations of race in the art world. These are plentiful. Highly recommend you read this if that topic interests you.
  • Painter is also a seasoned writer and it shows. Her knack for setting a scene is delightful throughout. Newark, where Painter is from, plays a big role and she really gives you a sense of what the city is like.

I was going to do a Things I Didn’t Love section, but really, there aren’t any. So, I leave you with an example of my last point from the book:

“Sitting in front of me on Newark light rail one afternoon were a couple of kids—early twenties or so—listening to music, bumping around in their seats, and talking loud, just exuberant. She was beautiful and spirited, he kind of ordinary to look at. He had the music, but he shared an earbud with her, two heads on one iPod. As she danced in her seat, he did something amazing. He played the subway car partition like a conga drum:

DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap Deep DEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop DeepDEEP slap stop
DeepDEEP slap stop

He pulsated a salsa rhythm on a vertical plastic divider. Totally awesome! I was ready for all of us passengers to jump up and boogie down the aisle. I wouldn’t have led off dancing, but I definitely would have joined in. What joy in our white and black metal tube of light rail beside Branch Brook Park, a carnival parade on a workday, an outbreak of brotherly love to a salsa beat. Strangers waving their arms and shaking their booties to the music, grinning and singing and looking straight in the eyes of their comrades in commute. But when the pretty girl started clapping her hands to the music, he of the beat shushed her. No dancing in the Newark light rail that afternoon.”

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