The Matterhorn is painted in hues of red, the grandiosity of the Swiss mountain evident even in 2-D. As I look further, I can make out the faint outline of human figures in the foreground, their colors blending with the landscape around them.
“I want the figures to remind the viewer how magnificent and large this mountain is,” said Noelle Phares. “They are only there to remind the viewer that the subject is the setting.”
This piece is a work in progress for Denver-based artist Noelle Phares. The message behind it, however, is far from that. Looking around her Lakewood studio, her pieces are all stunningly unique. However, between each of them, one thing remains constant: their ability to tell a story, one that you can’t help but need to hear.
Phares has spent the last few years making a name for herself in the art world, but her path to get there was far from typical.
“I kind of always thought about contributing to living in a sustainable way,” she explained. “The way I thought I would do that is through science.”
Phares is an environmental scientist by training. She achieved a BS in Biochemistry and an MS in Environmental Science, and spent three years running products at an environmental tech start-up.
“But I just wasn’t happy,” she said. “For years I was like ‘why am I not satisfied with this work? It’s so important.’ I think a big piece of that was just realizing I could not summarize what all those years went towards. I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t feel it. I just knew I needed a change.”
Phares quit her job in the spring of 2017 while still living in San Francisco. At the time, she believed she would find another role in the environmental tech world. However, this time away from work ended up leading her to a rediscovered passion.
“Sitting at my tiny apartment desk, I started water coloring every day. It reminded me that I had this deep dream of being an artist as a little kid,” she said. “My dream growing up, which felt like a very unrealistic dream, was either to be a musician or an artist. I never really thought those were practical career paths.”
Aside from a single high school art class, Phares has had no formal art training. Art had always been more of an afterthought, an oil painting here and there in college. But with more days spent with a brush in hand, a newfound creative spark was born.
“I felt like I had something to paint about … the creative stuff came really easy to me, so I made the crazy choice to just dive in,” she said.
Her Etsy shop launched with just a collection of 10 prints — small pieces of a cactus or geode that reflected what Phares saw within nature. But as her art evolved, Phares began to question how to further mesh her two passions – environmental science and art.
“What I was really drawn to from the environmental science perspective was looking at how the things that people built alter landscapes over time,” explained Phares. “How do the buildings we create change the way that water flows through landscapes? How do landscapes alter themselves around the things we build?”
Mountainsides, one of her most popular pieces to date, was the first painting that blended geometry and art. The print is a mixture of structure and flow, an abstract take on the Sierra Nevada mountains built by hexagons and other geometric shapes.
“It sparks an interesting story of how landscape comes together with the sharp angles and shapes of human structures. They are almost violently clashed together at first. But over time, I start to think about how to morph them together in a less aggressive way,” she said.
As Phares work has evolved over time, the meaning behind her work remains the same. She attributes a lot of her success over the last few years to her message — giving viewers a unique story with every single piece.
“My ultimate goal at this point is to spark conversation and thoughts about the way buildings alter our landscapes, for better and for worse, but also to paint them beautifully, just to remind us that our ultimate goal as developers on this planet should be to develop in a way that enhances the world, not destroys it,” she shared.
This message is evident throughout her collections and is one that has resonated with people across the world. Her work can be found not only across Denver but in galleries across the country. Her first international exhibition — The Way We Saw It — will be opening in the United Kingdom on October 14, 2021. She has also collaborated with a number of outdoor brands that emulate her goals — from designing a pair skis for 4FRNT, a clothing line with Merrel and a sock design with Smartwool that will be released this fall.
But no matter the medium, the best part for Phares is seeing the reaction to her work.
“People always want to know the story. I always find people curious about ‘what does it mean?'” she said. “That is half of the goal of this work to me. Even if just in conversation with people who are looking at it, I get to talk to them more about landscape and why it is vulnerable and why it’s so important to us as humans — that’s why I paint.”
While Phares typically creates her art on canvas, her most recent project has been with Blackbrush Studios — a beautifully renovated collection of studio space in Lakewood. After moving from San Francisco to Colorado three and a half years ago, Phares found it difficult to find an artists studio to fit her needs. She and her now-husband spent a year and a half renovating an old gun shop into a stunning creative space for artists.
Along with Phares, Blackbrush currently houses photographer Tom McCorkle and Madelyn Claire Floral Design. The three collaborate on events hosted in the space — their opening party this past June hosted over 350 people along with live music, food trucks and a collection painted by Phares exclusively for the event.
A big step up from her San Francisco apartment desk, Blackbrush has given Phares a new and inspiring place to work. But beyond that, it has been a space for Phares to grow as an artist. Each piece in her studio is vastly different, depicting a landscape and perspective that is entirely new.
“I think the hardest thing throughout this journey has been trying to focus on ‘What is my niche? What do I have that is unique to say?’ It’s been four years now painting full time, and I think that is the thing that will always change. But it’s been the most interesting part,” said Phares.
But while her art continues to evolve and change, Phares’ goal to contribute to the environmental science world through her work remains constant. Her mission is clear: draw people into the conversation.
“My goal is to spark conversation about what meaningful design is and to inspire people to be more conscientious about designing in the way that enhances nature instead of hurting it,” said Phares. “I run prints of my paintings so they end up in so many places they never would have otherwise. A single print can go out to 1,000 different houses, a part of that conversation goes into each of those homes as well.”
Noelle Phares is a Denver-based artist with work in galleries around the world. Her work can be found on her website and on her Etsy shop. Blackbrush Studios is located at 1431 Estes St., Lakewood. To learn more about upcoming events and new art collections, follow Phares on Instagram or contact her at [email protected]
All photography by Adrienne Thomas.