Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced



The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Fiction:
Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

Nonfiction:
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Biography:
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

Autobiography:
The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Poetry:
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Criticism:
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)

Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.

A Year in Reading: Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers

The self is singular; the self is communal. What a paradox, especially in this harrowing year, filled with systemic horrors and the threat of more to come. In a cultural moment that seems to insist on the monolithic, the solipsistic, and a begrudging, dangerous littleness, my whole body’s bruised from walking into obduration. I’ve felt anger and, under that, deep sadness, each a reminder that the world is as it always has been. In a valley of shadows, I’ve looked for the light of underground things burst open. I’ve reached for what dispelled my feelings of singularity, of arrested numbness. Short stories and memoir were frequent choices but also the comfort of genre fiction and young adult for the ways they dare to interrogate what’s worst in us while imagining a world at its best. In every case, a scintillating, nervy shiver coursed through me, each book reminding me of Jane Kenyon’s famed luminous particular: They insist on themselves and the unique ordinariness of what they contain.

Book after book, I consumed them like food.

Growing up poor and blue collar in a small town, I was taught a peculiar mix of pride and self-loathing that propelled me out of the community in pursuit of an education and better opportunities but also caused me to resettle in an equally rural place. Many days, I’m convinced there’s no more intractable misunderstanding than the current urban-rural divide, so I reveled in the depictions of rural life in Sarah Stonich’s Laurentian Divide and Silas House’s Southernmost. These contemporary fictions explore small towns in two different parts of the United States—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Tennessee’s Cumberland River Valley—and explode stereotypes in favor of these communities’ whorled particularities. For all that small towns have grown to symbolize what’s problematic, Stonich and House showed me towns like my own: no longer the geographically and socially isolated enclaves they might have been but populated by people who are, like anywhere else, constantly negotiating their differences within the concentric rings of personal, family, regional, and national identity.

In current public discourse, otherness is flagged as divisive, possibly disingenuous, and always inherently suspect. How mystifying (and exhausting) it seems that in the land of fierce individualism, we’re so out of touch with our own otherness that we’re distrustful of another’s and, thus, made blind to our own privilege. Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer’s The Water Diviner and Other Stories and Anita Felicelli’s Love Songs for a Lost Continent are both elegant, assertive short story collections, yet, because they’re written by writers of color who explore cultural and diasporic identities, these authors are expected to explicitly establish the context and perspective they’re writing from in ways white writers should also be expected to, but, largely, still aren’t. In the process, Vilhauer and Felicelli elevate and explode that expectation, leaving no issue on the table from race to class, sexual orientation to mental health, gender to neurodivergence. Equally memorable, Erin O. White’s memoir, Given Up for You, pursues and interrogates her own privilege as a straight-passing lesbian, middle-class white woman, and Roman Catholic convert. White makes a spare poetry out of her grief at letting go of systems that don’t see her as fully human. Whether memoir or short story, these books negotiate ideas of otherness and privilege on a granular level, individualizing, expanding, and widening the concepts. Difference is honored and interrogated, not as performance, but as particular and pedestrian.

In a country that seems dangerously fractured, books about relationships—with the self, with others, with art and nature and culture—fortified me. A treatise on the shared threshold of devastation and beauty, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love uses Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present to exhibit what’s obscured in the quotidian lives of artist and viewers alike, but Rose’s shattering insight and devastating turns of phrase are what turns life into art and brings art to life. Two memoirs, Nell Painter’s Old in Art School and Tracy Franz’s My Year of Dirt and Water, offer different, distinct voices navigating a season of their lives through art. Painter’s a personality par excellence; forthright, erudite, and perfectly profane, she enthralls. Franz matches restraint with reflexiveness, the precision of her self-awareness countered by her telling omissions. Finally, there’s the power of relating to art itself. Photographer Ryan J. Bush’s The Music of Trees, a book that collects three series of his tree images, positions the natural world as a valance point, its physicality a portal that leads beyond what is fixed.

When I despaired, books that broke conventions, stretched definitions and understanding to the breaking point, helped me relearn the world a little. Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited retells the same story, bending it through five different genres seamlessly as turning a kaleidoscope, the direction of each story and the person Jane becomes hinging on moments as crucial as William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow. A Rube Goldberg machine of a novel, Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik follows a series of protagonists as they drift through the background and foreground of each others’ lives, rarely suspecting their interconnectedness. Seemingly discreet categories bleed together—fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, creator and created, individual and collective—as experience is co-constructed and made almost pathologically diffuse. Playing with fractures and breaks, these books’ radical narrative structures embrace multiplicity and the riotous, cacophonous selves we carry inside our beings.

Equally necessary were the books situated in familiar terrains, the ones that used genre conventions to demand the world is everything and nothing like we’ve been taught to expect. Told in Dolores Extract No. 1’s own voice, Bethany C. Morrow’s MEM, a story about memory, identity, property, colorism, and class, centers the eschatological and ethical questions underpinning science of the mind in an alternate early 20th century where the wealthy can remove their memories and deposit them into humanoid vessels. Contemporary young adult novels Malcolm McNeill’s The Beginning Woods and Michael Fishwick’s The White Hare wield fairy tales, legends, and the grace notes of their prose to burn through love’s brutality and the pain it frequently leaves in its wake. Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God, translated by Guy Puzey, revisits the New Testament’s marginal people and tells disconcerting stories of darkness and light that illustrate just how disruptive and disturbing this “good news” should be. Across genres, each one offered stories about the power of stories whether it’s those we’re told about ourselves, the ones we tell ourselves, or the stories we become.

No story confronted me more starkly than family separations at the border and the cruelty exacted on the vulnerable and dependent, especially children. We love stories of children’s resiliency, but I’m sick of them. What do those stories serve more than our own equivocation and shame? Instead, give me NoNieqa Ramos’s The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary. The narrator, Macy Grey, an impoverished high-school girl of color whose anger is palpable, demanding, and so very justified, is as cathartic as the deep love and sorrow she guards. Or look at poet Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s What Runs Over, a memoir in verse, whose language runs red as their childhood. That Candrilli makes beauty out of body horror and the long shadow of suppressing their transness is a radical act of self-reclamation and love that doesn’t occlude the clangor of struggle and violence. Both these books tested my own resiliency and lead me back to another, Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, which codifies the geography of fantasy and all the children who’ve slipped through its countless portals as a way to address the dissonance that can occur between the family or society a person’s born into and the person they truly are. This book’s a balm because of its stubborn belief that a place exists where each person’s totality fits, even if it’s another world. Even if that world hasn’t been found yet. Even if it’s irrevocably lost.

Ricocheting between vibration and enervation, I’ve needed books to restore me, to show me how to live in this moment but also live beyond it. I craved the singular intimacy of an author’s inmost self and mine traveling through those pages together and arriving on the other side, individually and collectively transformed. Yet even after this yearlong feast, I’ll sidle up to another book tomorrow like the dog in Jane Kenyon’s “Biscuit,” asking for bread, expecting bread, even when I might be given a stone.

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I Make What I Want: The Millions Interviews Nell Painter

One of the questions at the heart of Old in Art School, the new memoir by Nell Painter, is what it takes to be “An Artist” and who gets to decide you’ve earned those capital A’s. In her 60s, Painter left a career as an eminent Princeton historian and author of numerous books about African-American history and race—including, in 2010, The History of White People—to study painting and drawing at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design.

After a lifetime of hard work and intellectual rigor adding up to success, Painter found that art school was governed by a different equation, where who you were and how you looked seemed to be at least as important as what you produced. “To be An Artist was to be a certain kind of person that you could not become through education or practice,” she writes. “If I lacked the essential quality of being An Artist, I was condemned to failure.”

In a recent interview at her vacation home in the Adirondacks, Painter discussed why she chose such a radical change of direction at this time in her life and what she learned about art, society, and herself in the process.

The Millions: Did you always think you might go into academia?

Nell Painter: Yeah, after I got a C in sculpture and realized—I thought—I didn’t have enough talent to be an artist.

TM: So your earliest love was art?

NP: Oh, yeah, I drew all the time, and I was briefly an art major at Berkeley. But this C—and I earned my C, I didn’t do a damn thing—I thought, oh, if you have talent…

TM: Are you glad that you took the history path or do you ever wish that you had stuck with art?

NP: Oh, no, I did the right thing—not for the right reasons, necessarily. That generation, the Modernist generation of women and black people—totally ignored. And there are some fantastic artists in that generation. I don’t think, working as hard as you have to work for as long as you have to work, I don’t know if I could have sustained it, with virtually no recognition.

TM: What made you decide to make this huge change at this point in your life? Did you feel that you had done everything in your academic career that you wanted to do?

NP: I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s as good a way to put it…I was ready to move on. I had shepherded a whole lot of really good dissertations, and I had written a whole lot of really good books. And as I say in Old in Art School, my history writing had started pulling me into the visual already.

TM: I imagine you knew that you would be older than most of your classmates, but did you imagine that it would make as much of a difference as it did?

NP: No. I had done these tryouts, like taking classes at Princeton and doing the drawing and painting marathon. And it didn’t come up either time, so for me it was, first, satisfying myself that it was rewarding enough to invest a lot of time, and that I had the physical stamina to do it, and so the answers in both cases were yes. I thought that would do it. You know, I didn’t feel so old in undergraduate school, because Rutgers is a university, and there was a lot else going on besides art, whereas the Rhode Island School of Design is an art school and design school.

TM: Are you saying that there were people of different ages at Rutgers, so it didn’t feel like you stood out?

NP: Yes, and at Rutgers my fellow students weren’t on a track to become professional artists in the same way that I discovered was so wrong for me in graduate school. It took me a long time to figure out.

TM: So you’ve concluded that wasn’t the track for you?

NP: I used to say, oh, I’m a former historian. I don’t say that anymore. I’m still a historian. As I was preparing my book, going through my journals, I discovered that every three months or so, I would say, “Oh, I want to make books.” But I’d always forget, what is it I’m doing here? But it was hard to realize that I am not going to be an artist like my fellow students [at RISD] are going to be artists. I mean, they may not become the artists they want to be, but their chances are much greater because they don’t have the kind of past that I have.

TM: Do you think it was your age, or your particular background and education?

NP: It was both.

TM: You wrote about what you called your “20th-century eyes” being a limitation in art school, and also about how the other students presented themselves, that people dressed “like artists,” and I think you even said at one point that everybody was thin or at least nobody was overweight. How much do you feel your critiques or the response to your work was related to how people were perceiving you as a person? And how much do you think who an artist is should affect the judgement of their work?

NP: I don’t know if that’s a “should” I can address. We live in a world that is racist and sexist and ageist, and all of those are so salient in our culture that it’s kind of counterfactual to try to figure it out. I did feel that I was being “invisible-ized” as an old, black woman. I definitely felt that, and women my age, of any race or class, can testify to feeling invisible.

TM: There is so much emphasis on youth and what you called “right-nowness” in our culture, but is there, or should there be, a place for the perspectives of people of different generations?

NP: Art is market-driven. Art is about taste. There are no “should”s. I mean, we can decry ageism and sexism and racism but [it doesn’t change anything]. There are no objective criteria, and that was one of the hardest things, because a lot of people were pretending that there were objective criteria, and there weren’t. There’s just so much art in the world and there’s so much art that succeeds that’s different from other art that succeeds—in the sense of the marketplace, which is basically how you judge.

One of my teachers at RISD, I said to him, “What’s to become of me?” and he said, “I don’t think you’ll get a gallery, but if you do it’ll be, like, in a summer place.” Such a putdown. But turns out that his gallery was in a summer place, and it just closed. Then he said, “Well, people may buy your work but they’ll buy it because it’s you, not because it’s good art.” Another putdown. I think I realized right then what was going on here, that this was very personal about him and that also, what people buy is usually about the artist. And certainly, when you get to prices, it’s about who the artist is, it’s not what the stuff looks like. And then again, there’s so many different ways the art can look, so I don’t feel diminished that people may buy my work because it’s me, because that’s how the marketplace is.

I make the work that satisfies me. I have no idea who my market is and what they would want. I make what I want.

TM: Do you think art school was worthwhile, not just in your growth as an artist but as a life experience? With people living longer, there’s a lot of talk about what to do with your post-career life and keeping your mind active. Do you feel that it gave you a sense of purpose?

NP: I don’t know how much usefulness for other people my particular experience would be, because other people aren’t likely to go into it with what I did. But on the other hand, I think one big question worth asking, for someone who is thinking about an encore career, is how intense do you want it to be? I went for 100 percent intensity. And, you know, people said to me even before I went to Mason Gross, “You have lots of degrees—why don’t you just take some classes?” And for some people that will work. But I said I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian, which is totally misguided.

TM: Why do you think it’s misguided?

NP: I just didn’t have the time. Also, I had too many entanglements. When I went to Harvard my parents were healthy; they could help me, and I didn’t have a public presence in the world, so those were the two big sucks of energy and time this time around.

TM: Was this the first time you had written something autobiographical?

NP: Yes.

TM: How did you find that compared to scholarly writing?

NP: It was so hard. [Laughing.] It was so hard. Luckily I had an agent who is very experienced and patient and helpful and got me through it.

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