Fadulu: So fast-forward: You end up retiring from Princeton and decide to pursue art. How did you make that decision?
Painter: It was a series of steps. The first thing was getting from text to image. That happened over the course of a decade or so. I wrote Sojourner Truth’s biography: Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. Sojourner Truth did not read and write. What she did was have her photographs taken. She posed. She paid for the photos, so she was the one who decided how she wanted to be seen. I had to give myself a visual education.
Then, as I was working on another book, called Creating Black Americans, I decided to use black fine art. There I could see all this fantastic art. Stuff I didn’t know existed. I had not paid attention to art for a long time. I discovered artists who were thrilling.
Then, of course, there was my mother, who had changed her life. So I retired a little early.
Fadulu: How did your mother change her life?
Painter: When my mother retired at 65 from hiring teachers and writing reports and going around the state talking about education, she decided that I and my friends were having such a good time writing books that she wanted to write one too. She wanted to write this book about basically herself and her friends. Nice, middle-class black people. It took her 10 years. But she wrote it and she published it, and then she started another book, which also took her 10 years.
Fadulu: Did being a historian help you at all as an art student?
Painter: Quite to the contrary. It was a hindrance, because my teachers didn’t want me to use historical subject matter, and they didn’t want me to use text. That was all considered academic, which, in the categories of my disabilities, the biggest one is old, then the next one is academic.
One of my strengths as a historian is that I can take complicated, sometimes even contradictory, people and events or phenomena and present them in a way that is clear, but is also nuanced. My role as a historian is to take you, the reader, with me so that you see what I see.
In art, you don’t dictate to the viewer. This is true whether I’m working abstractly or figuratively, that I make something the way I want to make it, the way my hand wants to make it, the way I see it, and if you see that same thing, okay. But if you see something else, that’s okay too.
Fadulu: Which do you prefer?
Painter: I like the freedom. One of the reasons I got into art in the first place was I wanted to free myself of being true to the archive. When I go to the archive as a historian, I can’t say what I want to find. As an artist, I can do whatever I please to the archive.
Fadulu: If you had to advise your younger self, would you follow the same trajectory?
Painter: I would say to my younger self, “Go ahead and do it, but know it’s going to be excruciatingly painful at some point, and that that point will pass.”