Notes on Old In Art School

Old In Art School

During that week that spans Christmas and New Years I found myself enmeshed in Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Irvin Painter.

Amazon reminds me that “You purchased this item on June 27, 2018“, yet it took me until now to start and voraciously read. 

The book tells of the biases even an insanely ambitious and successful person can feel while pursuing their MFA. Painter was 64 when she went back to school. 

This is for anyone who felt the anger that the MFA is broken and you can make yourself crazy for years not feeling the validation you were looking for in pursuing that piece of paper. It happened to me. Add on top of that the fact that she is a person of color and a woman who is also OLD, god forbid and the wheels come off. 

It made me want to write her a letter. Did you know there are many people who feel the same way? 

Then I ask myself why is it so important that we pursue this thing, the MFA. 

The parameters of success in the MFA degree are so narrow and have not changed since when it became popular probably in the 70s. Who created this fantasy? Better question, why do I still care? I do. 

There is also a very small side bar I wish to depart to her, as I think at this point she has found her place in the art world and all is well. However, she is still insecure about how her love of knitting fits in with all of this, as witnessed to how she spent her time during the first year of the pandemic. 

She said it was her secret, although those of us who have the same predilection saw the tip off when she describes what she was wearing to art school, ” My fashion statement said “comfort”. Plain white T-shirt, black pants (I was the only one in long pants), sturdy what New Balance walking shoes  and a baseball cap. Today’s cap said ,”New York Sheep and Wool Festival“. I may not have been the only knitter in that crowd, but I was the only one wearing it, on this, my second day as a BFA student at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.”  The next paragraph discusses the first query of  a fellow student asking her how old she was. 

Sixty-four, I answered. 

In 2020 Painter publishesI Knit Socks for Adrienne

“I Knit Socks for Adrienne is the most personally declarative piece of art I have ever made, more personal, even, than self-portraits, precisely because it is personally declarative in words that wrench the artist Nell Painter out of the closet as a knitter. For a long time I stayed closeted as a knitter. I thought, Let you see me as an artist, as an historian, as an artist who uses history, not let you see me as a knitter: a crafts-woman, an old lady sitting around with her needles and yarn. That mental image wasn’t one I had been able to expose.”

Painter I Knit Socks for Adri

I too knit during the pandemic. I finished two sweaters I had started a decade earlier, which was like some ungodly miracle. There was comfort. I continue to try to reconcile in my own head why knitting and painting are two different things for me, one is a fall back when the other is not going well or able to function. I have no problem with other people declaring knitting, crotchet, fiber projects of any sort fine art, it just doesn’t work in my own personal brain that way. Nell’s either.

But 2020 opened my closet door to reveal me knitting to hold myself together. There was all the death, searing painful deaths by the hundreds of thousands, especially of Black people. There was economic want. There was hunger. There was hope, in the hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets calling down racism, denouncing White supremacy, declaring Black Lives Matter, roughing up, tearing down monuments to the Confederacy. The dead scared me. The demonstrators made me feel safer in the USA than ever before.

I hope she is still knitting.

For a great interview with Nell, listen to this episode of Modern Art Notes with Tyler Green.

And here she is on PBS Newshour.