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Photo by Noelle Phares

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Nature's Timestamps

Meet Artist Noelle Phares, Who’s Finding the Abstract in the West’s Changing Landscapes

Article by Katherine Owen

Photography by Poppy & Co. by Kelsey Huffer

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

For many artists, the call to create comes first—the medium and subject matter fall into place later. For Denver artist Noelle Phares, the arrival at a career as an artist took a different path. 

“By the time I decided to become an artist, it wasn't really because I thought, 'I have to be a painter,'” Noelle explains. “It was more a feeling of, ‘God, I love the natural world.’” 

Noelle’s work, which draws on paints, pastels, inks, pencils and sometimes even thread to capture entrancing scenes of nature, meditates on “the ever-encroaching presence of humanity into previously pristine open spaces.” 

“I like to use abstract shapes and features that resemble architectural lines as nods to the human footprint on that landscape, instead of presenting these themes directly. First and foremost, the painting should be beautiful, and secondarily it should invite the viewer to ask deeper questions about what’s really going on with that specific terrain."

“I tend to use palettes that are rooted in the natural tones of the landscape itself but also draw on the emotion that I want the viewer to feel as they look at the painting,” Noelle continues. “For example when I want the viewer to feel nostalgic, I introduce a lot more haze and atmospheric colors than I would in a painting that I want the viewer to feel like they are in now, in which the colors would probably be bolder and the lines harder.”

Noelle’s abstract but highly analytic approach makes sense with her professional background; she holds an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a master's in environmental data science. Before a leap of faith into full-time artistry, she spent 10 years working in tech and thinking about landscapes as geospatial data sets. Throughout that time, painting was something Noelle did for fun but didn’t see as a career path. “I just didn't have anyone in my life who was a working artist,” Noelle explains. “My academic focus was always on the sciences. I wanted to learn about the building blocks of life and those topics demanded my full attention through my twenties. I felt as if I needed to understand how the universe worked before deciding how I would leverage that information in my career later on.” But after a decade, Noelle reports the office atmosphere, computer screens and “abstract techie work” wore on her: “I kind of threw up my hands one day, feeling that this is just not what I am.” 

So she made the leap. Today, her art can be found not just on the walls of galleries and collectors’ homes but on skis, SmartWool socks, Merrell gear, beer cans, wine bottles and more. For someone like Noelle, who reports an insatiable craving for new–be it food, travel or art—the product collabs offer the chance to envision different methods and outcomes for her work. 

“There's nothing better than being out skiing and randomly looking down from the lift and seeing someone wearing a pair of skis that I've designed. That's happened twice, so it doesn't happen that much,” Noelle laughs. “But when it did, I thought, 'Dang, that's pretty cool.'” 

Yet still, one of the greatest changes in her art career so far, attests Noelle, has been becoming a parent. She and her husband welcomed a daughter in early 2023, and it opened a whole new set of questions for her to explore in her work. 

“A lot of people told me that having a kid would change my perspective for the better. And I just didn't know how to believe them, because you just don't know what you don't know,” Noelle says. “I wasn't someone who had a strong vision about who I would be as a parent, but luckily those people were right. Having a child has absolutely underscored how important it is to me to make sure that she has clean air to breathe and water to drink. And maybe even mountains that she can go back to where she doesn’t have to hear the sound of a road.” 

BMoCa’s current exhibit, “Tracking Time” features Noelle’s paintings and sketches, alongside multi-disciplinary artist Chelsea Kaiah, both commenting on “our evolving relationship to the natural world through the lenses of environmental studies and Native American cosmology, respectively”. 

Noelle focused her study on the Colorado River. Noelle details, “I immediately thought of the Colorado River as an apt subject for many reasons. Firstly, the environmental, political and socioeconomic issues surrounding the river and the use of its waters abound in the West today. With recent mega-droughts and shifting water policies, the 40 million people who rely on the river are well aware of its increasing scarcity. Secondly, Colorado cuts a course through 1,450 miles of shifting terrain that runs through seven states and 11 national parks, from high alpine mountains to vast desert to the Delta in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. This diversity of landscapes along her course presents an array of ecological perspectives from which to paint.”

These new paintings detail locations in five Western states, ranging from our familiar Colorado landscapes to Glenwood Canyon with I-70 running alongside the river to the Grand Canyon, ending with landmarks found all the way in Nevada at the Hoover Dam. 

Noelle made her way around from location to location to take in the surroundings and begin her sketches. She details the studies, “I got in my camper van last fall and drove a couple of thousand miles to spend time in these places and gather reference imagery. I sketched and wrote and marveled at how bright the stars are in the evenings next to the river in places far away from settlements.” 

The paintings and sketches are accompanied by Noelle’s original poetry, as poetry is a part of Noelle’s practice of creating her art and bringing in her personal experience with the different locations depicted throughout the collection. 

Noelle wraps up her creation of “Tracking Time”, “The exercise left me with the knowledge that one cannot 'capture' her subject through this work, I can only contribute in some small way to enhancing our greater understanding and reverence for her. I am merely an observer and one of the many millions of people who contribute to her downfall as I water my lawn and ride her waves. I hoped not to be extractive in this relationship with the river, but instead observant and respectful. These works are timestamps, small blips of recognition on an ever-evolving map of being of both myself and the river.”

To learn more about Noelle, visit her website at or find her on Instagram at @noellephares. Visit her exhibition at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which is open until September 2nd.

  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares
  • Photo by Noelle Phares