The Atlantic

The Wisdom of Going Back to School in Retirement

The historian Nell Painter discusses her lifelong love of art, and how it felt to finally pursue her dream after she left the workplace.
Source: Steve Milller / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Not a lot of artwork covered the walls of the historian Nell Painter’s childhood home, but the art that did was political. The work of Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, both African American artists concerned with black subjects, lurked in the background of Painter’s life as a child. Her family was not an art family—her mother worked in education, and later wrote books, and her father worked as a lab technician at the University of California at Berkeley—but Painter found herself attracted to drawing.

For much of her career, Painter worked as a historian at Princeton University, studying gender and race, primarily. She is the author of one of a few books chronicling whiteness throughout history, and a biography of Sojourner Truth called . Upon retiring, Painter decided to go back to school—to get her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and become an artist. This week, Painter published a.

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