This Woman Went to Art School in Her 60s, Proving It’s Never Too Late to Pivot

TIME | Belinda Luscombe

Lots of famous people have turned to painting in their later years: Ringo Starr, Jim Carrey, George W. Bush. So it’s not unusual that Nell Painter, an accomplished historian and Princeton professor with six books and a string of honors to her name, took up art in her 60s. What’s surprising is that she went all the way back to art school.

The disadvantages of age are legion. The advantages are also considerable: respect, self-knowledge, mastery of a skill. Painter discards all of them, along with her “20th century eyes,” as she writes in her new memoir, Old in Art School. In fact, her training in historical rigor and clarity prove to be handicaps in art, a discipline that requires, she finds, “letting go of coherence.”

Painter, most famous for her book The History of White People, now addresses the equally ambitious question of what it takes to be an artist–and whether or not she has it. Many of the people she encounters (while dealing with ailing parents and finishing White People) don’t believe she does. Having faced down the dismissal of women and African Americans in academia, Painter has little trouble persisting despite those naysayers, or feeling O.K. among her 20-something fellow MFA students. What comes as more of a shock to her is her own self-doubt…read more

Image: Painter shows off her progress on the canvas