Historian and Artist, Nell Painter

A conversation with Nell Painter about her experiences as an art student and her current work spanning history and visual art.

Nell Painter, Self Portrait Triptych
Self Portrait Triptych

When I met Nell Painter I was a graduate student teaching beginning level drawing courses at Mason Gross School of the Arts. She was a student in one of my classes, and not an average undergraduate student — Nell, an eminent Princeton historian, had returned to school to study art; she was getting her B.F.A., and she asked good questions.

Nell is widely known for her work in history, which also frequently references visual culture — her biography of Sojourner Truth with its attention to Truth’s commissioned portraits, the extensive emphasis on visual art in Creating Black Americans, and her own illustrations in History of White People — to mention a few instances. Nell is also a contributor here at Dime and Honey. In the context of her writing here, and the unique combination of disciplines and achievements she brings, I wanted to ask her for her thoughts on Practice

Nell Painter: “Practice” is okay, but I think I prefer “process.” I’m very much a process artist, making work like an oyster, just laying down innumerable layers, manually and digitally.

Sarah Granett: Do you have a specific way of knowing when a painting or digital work is done? Does doneness matter? To use the pearl analogy, which is nice as it starts with that irritating bit of sand at its core — perhaps like art — does the pearl simply get bigger and increasingly rich?

NP: I don’t have a method of knowing when a piece is done; it’s more a feeling, but that feeling doesn’t always work. There’s a painting in my studio that’s been out for two years, asking me if it’s done. I don’t know. I still don’t know. But usually the piece announces its doneness of itself, by no longer feeling like that grain of sand in my shell. Still, some pieces continue to irritate without leading me to a solution.

SG: How does visuality as a historian relate to visuality as a visual artist?

NP: This is the hardest question of all for me, and for years I simply could not answer it.

As I was writing Old in Art School, my book about my experiences in art school, I realized how thinking about art for history and thinking about art for art differ with the example of the work of Kara Walker. In Creating Black Americans, I talked about her work as a means of visualizing American history. But in Carin Rodenborn’s 2D Foundations class at Mason Gross, she had us make art inspired by Walker’s use of silhouettes. Very different. For this assignment I used images from my own historical research, but I was making art, not history.

Silhouette, Positive (left) Negative- Abstract (right), 2006
Silhouette Positive (left) Silhouette Negative- Abstract (right), 2006

Of course, there was and still is a relationship between the Nell Painter who makes art and the Nell Irvin Painter who writes history. The most obvious place was the subject matter of my art — made at Mason Gross, then at RISD, and now: I use historical subject matter, usually drawn from my own writing, especially The History of White People.

The History of White People is a very visual book, in terms of sensitivity to what people see when they theorize white race, and in terms of the way art history (e.g., J. J. Winckelmann) enters the discussion.

When I was at Yaddo, an artist residency, in the fall of 2012, I made eight imagined maps and two paintings in a series I called Odalisque Atlas. The figure of the odalisque comes right out of The History of White People as the beautiful, young, white slave girl of sexual abuse, and also the origin of the word “Caucasian” for American white people. Odalisque Atlas kind of fell by the wayside, because the concepts and geography were too hard for viewers to understand, and the pieces were too detailed to work in reproduction in small format. But they have been appreciated up in various academic places like the Harvard Department of History of Art.

BSC historic 2012 72
Odalisque Atlas, 2012

All that is prelude. The real way I brought together history and art got started in 2013 when I presented at the Metropolitan Museum and showed fifteen of my own images. The next year, those became Art History by Nell Painter Volume XXVII Ancestral Arts, which was shown in the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art in Texas last spring.

SG: I sometimes think of history as a layering up through time, geological strata-like, and we live on top of it, but also through it, or it lives through us. Do layers in your painting, collage or Photoshop process relate to history for you? How do you think about layers in your visual art work?

NP: Nice metaphor, layers and history. I do think in layers now, literally, because I use them so often in my work. When I look at other people’s work, I see it in layers. I think “I know how they did that” and “I know how I want to do this” — in layers. I don’t think of the past in layers, but because I revise so extensively when I write, I think of writing history in layers of meaning through revision.

I think the easiest way to see how my visual process works in layers is to compare Art History by Nell Painter Volume XXVII and Volume XXVIII. Volume XXVIII works off the images in Volume XXVII, not exactly through layering, but through the process of making and remaking that layers permit.

Art History Volume XXVII, XXVIII
Art History Volume XXVII (left), Art History Volume XXVIII (right) Palmer, Hayden, Brady

SG: For some MFA artists, there’s an idea that you have to detox after grad school. Has this been the case for you?

NP: Yes, absolutely. I was a mess, a total mess at RISD. Until this past summer, when I wrote the RISD chapters in Old in Art School, I was still detoxing. I’m about detoxed by now. Writing has interfered with artmaking, but it has gotten me over art graduate school. I should add that I loved Mason Gross. My undergraduate art education gave me great satisfaction.

SG: You were great to have in class. You also gave me a piece of advice which I still hold on to, which was about prioritizing one’s own work. This turns out to be one of the top tensions in being an artist. I find I’m continually negotiating, because art doesn’t perform practically. Do you have any tips about that?

NP: Just keep at it. I’ve been written off so many times initially, because my black woman’s body, now my old black woman’s body doesn’t always command respect. Then, because I kept producing, I am seen and even written back in. So another lesson is to keep doing what you do, even when it seems not to be appreciated. A great big pile of your things (whatever they are) becomes an œuvre that has to be taken seriously. Later if not sooner. I think the meaning of “talent,” ordinarily so highly over-rated, is really just liking some activity enough to do it long enough to gain skill and find your own way.

SG: I’m interested in the daily details of work as a visual artist, because, one, it’s very hard to fit it in our ultra-busy, multi-tasking lives, and two, it feels important to explore what this work is — which sometimes doesn’t look like work. What constitutes your work? What activities, in the studio or outside?

NP: You’re exactly right in one, because there is so much to life as an artist that falls outside making art, especially when you’re older and you’re trailing former lives along with you. I continue to write and lecture as the author of The History of White People, most recently an op-ed in the New York Times. I’ve been responsible for my nearly 97-year-old father for several years, a heart-warming responsibility that also demands much emotional energy and time. I combine lecturing and art by always showing my own art work when I lecture as a historian. This means I always make some new work, if not as much as I would like to be making. And you have to clean up after you make art. You have to photograph it and make a record and, if the piece sells, keep records of sales. There are studio visits and other people’s openings. And you have to sort out your studio. Mine is a holy mess right now.

SG: When do you work? How do you work?

NP: Given the distance between north Newark where I live and the Ironbound, where my studio is located, I seldom get to the studio much before lunch. For lunch I’ll open a carton of lentil soup and put it in the microwave. Then I’ll work until my husband calls around 5. I lose track of time when I’m working.

I would love to come to the studio and work every day, but the Facts Of Life hardly make that possible.

How do I work? These days, toggling back and forth between hand work on a table with ink, paper, and collage and Photoshop on my computer. This means going between the large open room with the work table and a small office with the Mac.

SG: Can you explain the process?

NP: I’ve mentioned my back and forth manual and digital above. One example of that process is a piece I made for my MFA thesis, a high-keyed painting of a dog fight inspired by a black and white photograph. My piece began digitally, as I recomposed and colored the original photograph. Then I painted my digital image on canvas by hand. Then I photographed my painting. Then I recomposed and recolored it in Photoshop. Then I painted that and photographed it. Then I recomposed and recolored it in Photoshop and had that printed commercially in large format, one version in color, one black and white. I didn’t like the new black and white version and had it cut into 6” squares. I painted and collaged the 6” squares, scanned them, and digitally composed them. This became the piece.

Nell Painter, Frank on Dark Square Dogs, 2015
Frank on Dark Square Dogs, 2015

SG: What were some of your interests and motivations in the studio when you first started?

NP: I wanted to draw and paint because I enjoyed it pretty much as play. I knew skill was involved and quickly realized I wanted to acquire skills systematically, in a degree program with art history and criticism as well as studio. But basically, it was for the freedom to make visual fictions and the pleasure of working with eyes and hands.

SG: What are some of your interests and motivations in the studio now?

NP: Now I make art more freely and with less concern for coherence, whether visual or conceptual. I no longer worry (so much) about whether my art is good or not.

SG: Have there been surprises or discoveries?

NP: The biggest surprise was how vulnerable I was to the mean tearing down of art graduate school, how pathetically insecure I was for a few years. I thought I had a pretty strong ego — after all, I’m proud of living in Newark and being from Oakland. But art graduate school revealed weakness within.

Another surprise was how little effort needs to go into making satisfying art. Drawings I feared were too slight to count as art definitely turn out to count as art. And pieces I labored over for months don’t work for me. I learned — I’m learning — to appreciate spontaneity.

I also discovered to let go of what’s coherent as a good point in my art. Pieces I like very much now can make no sense whatever. I made an accordion book for a poet friend of photos of the shadows in my bathroom. It’s called Bathroom Book for Meena.

Bathroom Book for Meena 2013 72
Bathroom Book for Meena, 2013


In a conversation with Sarah Lewis at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Nell spoke about her experiences returning to school as an older student , and refers to tensions between what she calls her “twentieth-century eyes” and her “twenty-first-century” classmates. When I asked her about this, she offered a selection from her forthcoming book, Old in Art School.

As for my sense of what is art, I started out ignorant — so wrong, so utterly, completely, misguided. I dumbly prided myself on working as a painter while my fellow students, hunkered over canvases in their little corners of the big painting studio, copied other people’s photographs and drew cartoons and action figures. One pulled his watch cap down around his ears so that his face looked tiny. Another wore fey little dresses and talked loud about being shit faced. Her paintings depicted shitfacedness. I reckoned their derivative work surely could not be art, while my bad paintings, as original images, surely were. False and foolish pride, mine, beguiled by my lying twentieth-century eyes. […]

Coming out of history, I saw what visual artists now call appropriation as akin to copying or plagiarism in historical writing. I was used to scrupulously citing my sources, something artists do rarely. This conflict between the two fields’ use of other people’s work hobbled me in art school, to the point of taking me to the ridiculous experiment of putting footnotes in some of my paintings. Really. I knew Mark Twain said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” Even so, until the 1980s, originality was the hallmark of artistic genius. My eyes were still back there, before copying and reproduction emerged as widely respected ways of making postmodernist art in the “Pictures” generation.

It took me years in art school to recognize my twentieth-century eyes as my major handicap as an artist, the stigma marking me as old. My eyes hindered me perhaps more than my sex and race. I say perhaps, because I can’t disentangle old eyes from woman and black, and because I don’t want to dwell on my disadvantages. I did come to know that art is fundamentally about taste, and tastes vary; tastes change. My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the DIY aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of facture: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes. What I thought of as private intimacy came out in the open, as graphically as possible. […]

Regarding the combination of twenty-first-century, digital, and twentieth-century, pre-digital techniques in her work now —

Nell Painter: I actually like the flattening of digital images and chemical color. I’m deeply attached to hand work, will never give it up, but I feel good about digital imagery as a means to pull me out of the material world. I’m a small-M marxist, so “material world” also means the real world of history and politics and society, which I struggle to leave behind, all the while feeling good when I do leave it all behind to step into a purely or nearly purely visual world and language.


More information about Nell’s work can be found at nellpainter.com.

Images provided by Nell Painter.