This article was written for, curated and published by Voyage Magazine in May 2019. See feature on Voyage’s website HERE.
An Interview with Noelle Phares
Today we’d like to introduce you to Noelle Phares.
VM: Noelle, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
NP: Like most modern humans, my journey towards the present moment was a winding one. The cultural voice perpetually whispering that I could be professionally and personally satisfied, create good in the world, do something I loved, and sustain myself all at once propelled me through being a Division 1 track athlete in college, completing a BS in Biochemistry and a career as a research biochemist before going back to complete a Master’s degree in Environmental Science, and spending a few years leading a product team for an agricultural tech company in San Francisco before becoming the full-time artist that I am today.
The stark turn away from the sciences and into the arts may seem asynchronous to the outside observer, but I think we swim through the waters we need to swim through before landing in the spot that feels right. I learned about the precarious relationship man has with the natural world through my years as both a biochemist and an environmental scientist – the topic that now fuels my artistic endeavors. Those years taught me how to keenly observe nature and marvel at its incredible complexity. I learned grit and perseverance as an athlete. Working for quickly growing technology startups taught me about the fundamentals of running a business: sales, marketing, delegation, product-market fit, customer service, relationship building. All of these backgrounds converged harmoniously into the skillset I needed to hit the ground running when I turned towards the fine arts.
VM: We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
NP: Of course, there have been challenges. What’s worth building that doesn’t present challenge? I’ll highlight a couple of noteworthy hurdles.
Firstly, the decision to become an artist felt so right at the time and still does. But making the break from a cushy job in San Francisco’s booming and lucrative technology landscape to becoming an independent artist with no real background in fine arts and art sales took some guts. I spent so many years and a lot of education dollars finding my way to a position with some authority, a lot of scientifically creative license, and a handful of talented colleagues under my purview when I left my last job. As someone who inherently loves creating things, my job satisfaction comes from observing and marveling at what my work actually produces. In tech, the products were so abstract it became hard to grasp the impact my man-hours had on the world. I craved working with my hands and producing physical work I was proud of. But I agonized for months and years over this possible break from my previous reality. At the end of the day, I’m a risk taker. You’ve got to take risks and trust yourself to pull this kind of thing off.
Leading off of that, the second biggest challenge was making something sustainable for me out of nothing. Like most creators, I’ve spent times wallowing in the proverbial darkness, wondering “what am I doing? Am I crazy?”. Building an art business and a market for your wares requires building an audience, a recognizable brand, an impressive body of work. There is a chicken and egg problem that presents itself when none of those have been built yet – how do I produce an impressive body of work when I don’t have a wide audience to help me shape it? How do I financially sustain myself during the period to create the body of work without an existing stream of income? I got through this first period by saying yes to every opportunity and focusing on all of the things at once. I spent days building my website, applying to various shows and retail shops with the meager but growing work I had, and painting my butt off at night.
VM: We’d love to hear more about your work.
NP: I’m a painter. I’ve created a niche for myself in the contemporary landscape art world, painting fractured architectural landscapes. My work ranges from highly abstract renderings of landscapes to landscape realism. The landscape realism work helps me practice my fine art skills in capturing recognizable landscape features in paint, while the abstraction helps me to explore my unique way of viewing the world. My most well-known works, those which I have built my artist brand around, contain both realistic and abstract elements as I explore how the manmade environment and the natural environment intersect and modify each other. This particular subject comes directly from my years in science. I think the factor I’m most delighted in is that the work I happen to love creating meshes extremely well with a really wide audience’s taste. Customers frequently state something similar to “My partner and I never agree on art, because I like realism and he/she likes abstraction. But somehow you blend them together so seamlessly that your work appeals to both of us”. I’m lucky to have found a niche that I LOVE so dearly, that happens to coincide with the aesthetic interest of my customers.
More on the business side: Creating high-quality artwork that people are willing to pay for is the first requirement in being a financially successful artist. Second, and I’d say equally important, is the commitment to running my art business as, well a business. I estimate that I paint about 30% of the time. The rest of it is business. I have people who work for me, I spend a ton of time updating my website, creating marketing content for social media, email campaigns, and applications of all varieties. I have dozens of high-end suppliers which I settled on via diligent product testing, cost-benefit analysis, and market research. I have created a diverse array of channels through which I sell art, including the sale of prints via Etsy, retail shops around the country, direct via social media (Instagram), and craft shows. I sell high price-point originals through fine art galleries, art festivals, and through a variety of online platforms. Keeping my sales channels variable allows me to reach a diverse geographic and fiscally armed cross-section of potential customers. When I create work, I DO think about product market fit. Will the piece look good on a wall? Will it translate well into print form? Am I using palettes that mesh with current interior design trends?