One of the famous faces of Newark is quite literally its murals. A face just as known in the academic world, Nell Painter has lived in Newark for 10 years and most recently she’s been creating two masterful bodies of artwork. She invited me to her studio in the Ironbound section to share her passion and the global work she creates in our city.
Nell Painter is an author, Fulbright Scholar and a public intellectual who has appeared on various television programs such as C-SPAN Book TV and The Colbert Report. This interview takes place on February 13, 2013.
Zahra: Thanks for the tour of your studio. You could rent out space! Now with a long career in academia settling in soft firmament, your art career is ripe. At this very day and hour, what are your inspirations and aspirations as an artist?
Nell: I want people see my work and buy my work. I have to grosso modos (bodies of work). One is the Odalisque Atlas, which is about beauty, sex and slavery and on the other side I have a whole body of self-portraits.
Zahra: Yes, you’re up to 25 self-portraits. Now, you’re working on a series of “NO Self-portraits,” which for me is just a delicious concept. It’s closer to the multilayered experience we actually have.
Nell: My self-portraits are just exercises in a way. I use myself because I won’t get pushed out shape if they don’t look like me. And they don’t. They look all kinds of ways. It’s just visual play. The basis of those (points to a few orange and blue unfinished pieces on the floor leaning against a white beam) are Newark, and then I have some mono prints. I just play. I love the process of making art.
Zahra: So is play your inspiration?
Nell: I don’t have anything to prove so I just do what I like to do.
Zahra: I’m asking because artists, patrons, critics all are really interested in the creative process. As a poet and in reading interviews of poets, imagery, music and ‘I dunno’ are seminal answers for the inspiration question. I’m not trying to force an answer out of you but what’s there? Maybe not what inspires you but what’s there when an idea comes? So what triggers you, if not inspires?
Nell: Well, for the Odalisque Atlas, it’s ideas. But the ideas don’t make anything until they become images. It’s the making of the images that is what satisfies me. The reason I want these things to sell is that they start to pile up and I don’t want to drown in my own work.
Zahra: (laughing with Nell).That’s practical.
Nell: People sometimes say that making art is fun. No, it’s not fun.
Zahra: It’s work!
Nell: It’s kind of like writing. I love to write history. I keep journals…but it’s the doing.
Zahra: You are so disciplined.
Nell: It’s enjoyable. I’ll tell you I don’t feel like I’m disciplined as an artist and I don’t feel like I was disciplined as a historian. I’ll tell you where I do feel disciplined, going to the Y(MCA). I love the Newark Y.
Zahra: (laughing with Nell).
Nell: Like today. I thought I’m not going to go but I swam my 25 laps. That’s discipline.
Zahra: Wow, yes it is. Anything else you love about Newark?
Nell: I love the heterogeneity of Newark. My neighborhood, a middle-class neighborhood, is full of people who are more like me.
Zahra: What do you mean?
Nell: Well, I’ll tell you one thing I don’t like about Newark. I heard this around the Y, not so much in the Y…
Zahra: The crime?
Nell: Not the crime. But there are a lot of angry people and they speak harshly to each other; they speak harshly on the phone. They’re really angry…that’s what I don’t like about Newark.
Zahra: Do you think that has to do with class?
Nell: Yes, absolutely.
Zahra: Yes, you’re right. Anger can be a way to take the social temperature of class.
Nell: As far as I know we don’t have any chronically angry people on my block. It’s a neighborly block.
Zahra: Let’s go back to your self-portraits. You know you are quite stunning, you’re beautiful. But your self-portraits turn my enjoyment of your beauty into work…the work of critical thinking.
Nell: One of the reasons that I can do all of these self-portraits—so many different images of myself—is because I feel like if I did somebody else, especially somebody else African-American, there would be all of these issues: What color are they? How did you do the nose? How did you do the mouth? But with myself I can do myself because I’m OK deep down. I look OK so that if I make myself look funny, it’s fine. For African-American women and men all of this stuff is terribly freighted.
Zahra: So Odalisque Atlas will include pornographic girls, are they black?
Nell: They are going to be blue because I don’t want my viewers to get caught up on actual skin color because the point of beauty, sex and slavery is that it’s not going to spare you if you’re a certain color. That’s the nexus of beauty, sex, and slavery. It affects young boys too but my people are women.
Zahra: The dark clarity of that theme is quite profound. I suspect that could have been a Bible verse. Tell me, are there any other art forms that interest you? Who are you a patron to?
Nell: I buy my friends.
Zahra: I mean to say will we ever read a short story or poem by Nell Painter?
Nell: I do have a project about my experience going to graduate school. Several people asked me about that, but my erstwhile editor said, “well, who would read it?”
Zahra: Ah the marketplace. Are you still interested in it?
Nell: Yes, just the pure pleasure of doing it.
Zahra: What would it be, a memoir?
Nell: An artist book. It will be the first time I have done a book without an advance contract. It’s not a booky book. I may self-publish it. It may not be published at all.
Zahra: Let me go back to discipline and add self-perception. How do you stay on a course that invites or better still begets criticism?
Nell: I feel so much better in 2013 than I did in 2012 because I’m finally getting away from graduate school in which they beat me up by telling me that I would never succeed as a painter—I couldn’t draw and I couldn’t paint—and I always suspected that that was really true and it’s going to catch up with me. But I’m getting away from it now. It’s like every day I say to myself I’m not going to go there; I’m not going to engage that. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t creep in.
Zahra: Indeed. The critics’ corner never gets swept clean because it’s a house. OK Nell, just one more thing. The 33rd Marion Thompson Wright series, was last weekend. One of my fondest themes that they took up is memory. One speaker described memory as this aging, faulty mechanism, and how that affects historical perspective. What are your thoughts on memory and art?
Nell: Yes, I remember. I was there in the audience. My friend and I were talking about this before you came…about her gorgeous drawings on Greek puppets. I was saying you can do different things to them and they don’t have to look like themselves anymore. She had a response about what they really are and what her husband who’s Greek might say. And so I’m saying the same thing to you. As a poet, you do not have to remember correctly.
Zahra: There’s something to remember: once we start to create, there’s no getting it right.
Nell's artwork is for sale and you can see digital copies of more prints at nellpainter.com.