EDITOR'S NOTE: The Richland Source Gray Matters team traveled to New York City on Oct. 24 for The New Old Age summit sponsored by The Atlantic. This was one of the topics covered at that convention. Previous stories from this series included: Futurist shares vision for valuing age in the workplace; The 'Senior Intern' and the intergenerational workplace; and Want to age well? Exercise your mind and body.
When Nell Painter was young, she got a C in a sculpture class. She promptly decided art wasn’t for her.
“I thought if you had enough talent, you didn’t have to work,” Painter said, speaking to an audience at The Atlantic’s “The New Old Age” summit.
By the time she’d retired from her work as a historian at Princeton University, Painter had embraced a truth she didn’t grasp as a young adult.
“Talent isn’t something inside you, that either you are or you aren’t talented,” Painter said. “Talent is what makes you want to keep doing something for a long time in order to get good at it.”
So at the age of 64, Painter decided to study art.
We're not talking sign up for an art class at a senior center. This is go back to school and earn a BFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design.
Her fellow students mostly ignored her. Sometimes, they looked at her incredulously and asked, “How old are you?”
Painter had one teacher who opened every critique with, “You can’t draw. You can’t paint.”
Another teacher, whose name was Henry, told her, “You’ll never be an artist.”
Painter’s response was one she knows she couldn’t have mustered if she was younger.
“I said, 'Henry. that’s bull...,” Painter said.
And it was. Painter has become a successful professional artist. She became successful enough to write a memoir, “Old and in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over.”
The trick to not being defeated by the teacher’s comments, Painter said, was having spent 65 years cultivating a network of people who supported and believed in her.
That network taught her how to truly see herself.
“Do not see yourself through other people’s eyes,” Painter said. “See yourself through your inner eye, or your best friend’s eyes on you, or your mother’s eyes on you, or your loving husband’s eyes on you, but not the world’s.”
The things that truly got Painter through art school, she said, were the gifts of age, the wisdom of the ages.