Both Sides Now, Historian & Artist
Nell Painter Bridges Her Two Passions
At first glance, the followers of Nell Irvin Painter’s illustrious career as a historian would think she could rest on her many laurels as she faced 70. But Painter harbored a secret passion. And, now these followers and new ones in the arts are watching her fulfill the connotation of her surname: Nell Painter is now painting. And drawing and making prints.
Speaking about her decision to devote her current life to artistically interpreting people and events, she is sorting it all out, away from the bustle of her Newark, NJ residence.
“People often ask me what it is like,” she reflects from her second home in the Adirondacks. “It took me two years to put it together. At first I thought it was abrupt. In 2012 I said the careers have nothing in common. By 2013 I managed to figure it out.” And explaining what she is calling a detour will soon be a book called Old in Art School. It will be illustrated, she promises in the cultivated yet warm voice that is familiar to audiences of her speeches and television appearances.
So while you think there might be two Nell Painters, in actuality there is a blended woman who was a trailblazing historian and hasn’t left behind any of those scholarly interests. With her historiography, she overturned old theories of the black experience in America and wrote rich chapters that had been omitted from mainstream history.
The two loves, history and art, came together at a panel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. She was invited to discuss the larger issues around African art and New York modernism. As an addition to her research, she created 15 digital collages. “They went over very well. That made me happy. That put together the two parts of my life,” she says.
That gave her a confirmation of direction that she hadn’t always received in the art world. The tall, mocha-toned woman with the sprightly white natural cut now had won over some of the art world decision-makers. Her shelves of books would now have companion walls of canvases and art works on paper.
When she arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009, Painter had earned praise and position as a historian. For her second act, she started with a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Rutgers University. Her scholarly credentials started with her undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She had a PhD in history from Harvard. Her many books include The History of White People, Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, Southern History Across the Color Line, and the book that introduced us to her exceptional scholarship, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction. Her role as a public historian brought her into debates on race, scholarship and unearthed history. Painter now holds the title of Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita at Princeton.
But at RISD she found a curious isolation, both personal and contextual. “The first thing I noticed was the virtual absence of African American artists from the art texts. I knew about all these artists. I had grown up with a few of them. My father’s favorite artist was Elizabeth Catlett,” she explains. Painter was born in Houston but grew up in Oakland, CA. Her mother was a public school administrator and her father a laboratory technician at UC Berkeley. She is married to mathematician Glenn Shafer.
But, even decades after James A. Porter’s seminal history of black artists, she says their inclusion was “almost completely absent.” The conversations were frustrating. “At the Rhode Island School of Design they knew about Kara Walker. If I brought up people they would acknowledge them but they didn’t become part of ongoing conversation,” she recalls. In addition, Painter realized she was indeed starting over in some eyes. “One of the sources of my discomfort at RISD was that I was nobody. I was a little old lady. In history I had been somebody.” She says that factually, with the echo of the historian, but also with an edge, the evolving trait of an artist. Painter is indeed a blend.
Though she had allies at the college, she found that at most times her past credentials weren’t acknowledged. “The only thing that counted was I was on the Colbert Report.” She laughs, a deep, hearty laugh, because indeed she arm-wrestled with the comedian, debating the ideas in The History of White People (which traces a two thousand year history of how notions of whiteness were conceived and have changed). But no similar props for her appearances on C-Span or Bill Moyers.
Her medium right now is both digital and manual, inspired by subject matter. The Women’s Studies quarterly at Princeton asked her for an illustration. She went back to Beloved, the award-winning novel by Toni Morrison. “I looked at Morrison’s attention to color…. The colors that conveyed to her life. She talks about a quilt, orange and pink. I made these collages, one with oranges and pink. I couldn’t decide what I liked and the quarterly, it turned out, couldn’t use color. I sent them a grey one. And then they came back saying they liked the ones with color,” she says, realizing that art, like history, is subject to very personal interpretation.
She is a very reactive artist, inspired by many things around her. The cityscape of Newark, N.J., the reflections of her own images. “I started making self-portraits out of convenience,” she explains. She absorbed the compelling ways of her own models: Robert Colescott, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, Denyse Thomasos and Jacqueline Humphries.
Artists outside the painting sphere also inspired her. Meena Alexander, the acclaimed poet, asked in a verse “When asked what sort of book I wish I could make.” Answering, Painter created a mix of completed words and partial words on a sky-blue palate. In the same connection, she was enticed by the Brooklyn photographs of legendary street photographer Lucille Fornasieri-Gold. Painter found the photographs at the Brooklyn Historical Society and created a series called “Four Eyes on Place,” shown at the Gallery Aferro in Newark. Painter’s work was praised as “new images by digitally manipulating fragments of Lucille’s photographs and painting them into visual fiction.”
She may borrow elements, and experiment with the digital forms, but creates a vision that is entirely hers. Many visions. Looking at her “Black Sea Composite Maps” series (2012), shows a wicked sense of humor and the churning of a questioning mind about the world and what might have been. In her map Painter puts Jamaica and Puerto Rico smack in the Black Sea. Where else but the Black Sea? This would bring the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico to those chilly—maybe not culturally but politically—regions. An infusion of the baseball empires of the Dominican Republic, the foods and sounds of Jamaica and the history and beauty of Puerto Rico would cause another kind of upheaval.
As a result of her life’s work and her new self-expression, Painter has been studying how African American artists are recognized and treated. As an artist in the 21st century, the status and lack of status couldn’t be ignored. And we knew Painter, the investigator, would not bypass this conversation. And here her ideas of the place of blacks in context are very strong. A series compiled into an artist’s book called Art History Volume XXVII is a triple homage to the energized lines of graphic art and illustration, the art of collage and the black historic figures of the art world. She looks back in tributes to art historian James A. Porter, philosopher Alain Locke and artists Hale Woodruff, Palmer Hayden and Aaron Douglas in styles that have both Dadaist and contemporary resonances. The Hayden Harmon Brady image shows Palmer Hayden and one of his marine paintings juxtaposed with William Harmon, founder of the foundation which supported black artists from 1926 to the mid-1960s, and Mary Brady who directed the foundation.
What will unfold in her blended creativity is part of her life’s mission. “I am a process artist in that I make a lot of stuff. People have called it seriality. It is a way of working. I can’t stop. I love going deep into a process and creating an image.”
Home page image: Nell Painter in her Newark studio, 2014. Photo by Mansa Mussa
Jacqueline Trescott is an independent writer and editor whose recent projects include editing Through the Eyes of James A. Porter: America Art by Starmanda Bullock, a forthcoming study of the Howard University artist and teacher. Trescott formerly was a reporter for the Washington Post Style section.