An essay about the interplay of art + environment in my career as an artist for She Explores
Noelle Phares is a painter and mixed media artist who calls the Rocky Mountains of Colorado home. But it wasn’t always this way. Art is a new path for Noelle. In her previous life, she was an environmental scientist living in San Francisco.
In her vibrant and sometimes pastel color palette, and in the keen way she brings an environmental awareness onto the canvas, we see those paths converge in a meaningful way. She says her outdoor obsession and respect for natural resources fuel her somewhat abstracted, nature-themed artworks.
Instead of the usual artist’s statement, Noelle wrote an essay for us. In it she speaks eloquently to the connection between those seemingly disparate career paths – and how ultimately, “The end goal for me is the same: shepherd humanity back to an embodied respect for this astounding planet by actively considering the beauty and complexity that lies before us.”
Find out more, in Noelle’s words:
“The Goddess Mountain”
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Have you ever studied biology, or chemistry, or ecology? If you have, I imagine you were struck by the extreme complexity of life, as I was and still am. Not the pandemonium of man-made society, but the systems that make up life itself, and the universe that enables it.
I studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and worked as a research scientist in my early twenties, and later as an environmental scientist after completing a master’s in Environmental Science & Management.
I began to understand during those times that the world around us, above us, under us, inside of us is teeming with an incomprehensible measure of ordered chaos. I don’t know if there is a God, but whatever is responsible for it all is breathtakingly graceful, and impossibly beautiful. It is with this in mind that I approach my work as an artist.
I made a seemingly stark turn in my life path last year by leaving my job as a scientific PM at an agricultural tech company in San Francisco to dive into art full time. On the outside, it looked like a significant departure, but in reality it is not so different.
Both require discipline, skill, and a deep reverence for the natural world. It was one of those changes that took place swiftly and with little thought, but looking back it seems as inevitable as the eventual meeting of river and sea. The end goal for me is the same: shepherd humanity back to an embodied respect for this astounding planet by actively considering the beauty and complexity that lies before us.
The end goal for me is the same: shepherd humanity back to an embodied respect for this astounding planet by actively considering the beauty and complexity that lies before us.
Now I paint abstracted landscapes on paper with watercolor, gouache, and acrylic. Often, I embroider foliage with thread in a meager attempt to emulate the intricate, chlorophyllic laces that provide us with oxygen for nothing in return.
I abstract landscapes because as a human, I cannot possibly recreate the perfection of nature. To abstract is to admit that I am capable only of modest simulation.
I think there is an optimism in painting landscapes in such vivid hues. In a time when we are racing to drain the life out of soil itself, it seems impossible that color could remain in the weathered wrinkles of an aging terrain. And yet, life persists. Against the force of progress, biology pushes out of clear-cut forests and fire-scorched hills. She will not be parched.
Like life itself, my process is one of ordered chaos. It is as organic as the assemblage of fingerprints on my screen. I almost never have a concrete vision of what the end product will look like at the outset, or even near the end, as each new element is born only after the one before has settled into the paper’s pores. There is intention, but mostly the shapes and colors are the survivors of countless, quick, trials that take place mostly in my mind. Like raindrops from a tempest, pieces of a scene condense and fall out of a loose storm as the painting unfolds in fits and starts. I embrace this anti-process, as it reflects the beauty of natural disorder in every piece.
I am a perpetual night owl. The solitude of night lends itself to creativity, when everything else is sleeping, and silence gives way to original thought. I used to climb in bed with a sigh of relief as the strains of corporate or academic life seeped out of my bones, aching for relief from the pressure. Now, I close my eyes to swirling colors as my brain merrily plays out possibilities for my next move on paper. It is not a new feeling, but one that was lost for years while I waded through the stress of clamoring for a success judged by someone else in my teens and twenties.
I am reminded suddenly of childhood, when the lights would turn out and my twin sister and I whispered dreamily about visits to Disneyland. I am reminded of how easily we found nirvana in the striking worlds between blades of grass, in the dirt behind the bushes of our backyard in the Sierra Nevada. I am rejoicing in the newfound freedom of artistic license.
As an earth-loving gal, I join millions of Americans in my distaste with how the current political administration is treating public lands. My primary artistic goal for 2018 is to capture scenes of 24 endangered national monument lands in paint, conveying the looming threat of development through geometric structure bearing in on the landscape. I started on this style-journey last year with three commissioned pieces: “Alaska”, “Mountainsides”, and “Fool’s Gold” – all works that blend raw landscapes with stark, manmade structure. I hope to pay homage to the beauty of these places, while tacitly condemning the threat that development introduces to their endurance. I hope to remind people what is at stake.
I recently moved from San Francisco to Colorado, escaping some of America’s most bustling capitalism to steep instead in some of America’s wildest terrain. So with the great Rocky Mountains as my new muse, I crouch at the feet of giants with the humble hope of capturing even a fragment of their majesty on paper. To share what it feels like to know that being here is a wild gift, somehow born of all this glorious entropy.
Whether artist life is merely a sabbatical or a new era, it is teaching me how to communicate with nature in a quieter, more observant way.
Whether artist life is merely a sabbatical or a new era, it is teaching me how to communicate with nature in a quieter, more observant way. In a world bustling with destructive materialism, I think quiet moments with nature – whether on a hike, or in a studio with a scene blossoming on paper, or in contemplating a hung painting over a cup of morning coffee – are one of our greatest means for maintaining worldviews that place a high value on conservation.
As feminism is bucking its head, I hope that so too environmentalism accompanies her in the ranks of the new modern agenda. With brush in hand, I join environmental fighters with a new set of tools.
If recent years were those of the mountain goddess, may we artists do our part ushering in the years to come as those of the goddess mountai