I began my art education after retiring from a career as a corporate attorney. I spent four, full-time, academic years at an Atelier because I realized that, if I didn't know how to draw, no once a week art class or workshop would ever help me to make the kind of art I admired. I wasn't the oldest of my entering cohort of beginning students, but people over 50 were definitely in the minority. It didn't take long to realize that there is certainly a difference in generational perspectives on art education. Because of my background, I was looking forward to reading Nell Painter's Old in Art School, A Memoir of Starting Over, published in late 2019.
Painter was 63 when she set out to earn first a BFA, from Mason Gross College of Art at Rutgers University, and then an MFA, from RISD. She was a highly respected author and professor of history at Princeton University when she retired and was even in the process of finishing a book which became A History of White People, when she began her art school adventure (very much looking forward to reading that book as well). She may have had some art classes as an undergraduate when she was in her twenties, and she had always drawn, but her interest in art seems to have arisen while researching her history books and coming across little known artists and illustrators.
Painter never really explains, at least to my satisfaction, why she felt it necessary to obtain academic degrees in painting, except to state that she believed it was the only way to be taken seriously as An Artist, a concept she spends much of the book struggling to understand and explain. Certainly in her description of her teachers and their methods not once does she imply that she was "taught" anything. But in her struggle to fight back against the indifference and, in some cases, hostility of her teachers and fellow students, she completes her degrees and finds a place for herself and her art making. I certainly can relate to these experiences, having often encountered others with the assumption that old matron hobby painters shouldn't be taking themselves so seriously and making art full-time.
Painter concludes her book by making the crucial point that, having taken up art late in life, she can never exclude her lived experiences as a historian and as the only child and caretaker of frail and elderly parents, writing "I am a wise old person, not a hot young artist . . . 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." She also concludes that while she may be a Serious Artist and a Professional Artist, she will never be An Aartist, because she will always do other things.
To an Atelier trained artist who is curious about college and university art school, there are many observations of interest in this book. Not least among them is the depth and totality of modern academic art school's loathing of atelier training and realism, or anything that smacks of beauty for beauty's sake (or, for that matter, craft, technique, professionalism, etc.). These arguments always make me suspect that college and university art teachers must be deeply insecure about their drawing skills. In any event, the book falls completely short of recommending an art degree in painting, but makes an uplifting and persuasive case of pursuing one's passion late in life.
Five small egg paintings, including the one above, are headed for my NEMAA shop in time for my virtual presence at Art-A-Whirl 2021. Having just completed a Sargent master copy, I am so looking forward to resuming portrait painting with live models in the very near future. Happy Spring - and thanks for sticking with this long post.
All images copyright Jan M. Wagner Fine Art.