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At work in her Lakewood home’s cozy studio, artist Noelle Phares is surrounded by deep canyons, snowcapped mountains, desert rock formations, and forested hills. Her paintings depict vast landscapes—some she’s visited, some she hasn’t, and some she’s made up entirely—layered with line patterns, tiny human figures, and architectural structures. Each piece is not only a vibrant tribute to the natural world, but a study of the tension between mankind and nature. “My intention is to provide commentary on how humans experience nature in the modern world, and to explore what’s being distorted about each landscape,” she says. In other words, “how does human development impact the landscape over time?”
Phares has been curious about this question—and its answers—for most of her life. After a childhood spent exploring rivers and canyons near her forested hometown in northern California, she studied biochemistry and earned a masters in environmental sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and landed a role at an agricultural technology company soon after. Though she dabbled in drawing and painting as a hobby over the years, she only recently decided to pursue her passion as a full-time career.
“I was fed up with office life and really pining to see the physical fruits of my labor,” Phares says, “and art was the one thing in my life that I just loved doing.” In 2017, she quit her agri-tech job and dedicated her time to honing her painting skills. She began with small watercolor portraits of succulents, geodes, and desert foliage before settling into her more recent body of mixed-media abstract landscapes—as seen through the lens of a scientist. “Working at the agri-tech company totally changed my perspective on landscape,” she says. “Landscape is a result of what’s happened in the past, what’s happening in the present, what’s happening below the ground, above the ground. [In my work,] we broke landscapes up into these different stacked data layers, which comes through in my paintings that are more geometric.”
Although many of Phares’ compositions address humans’ negative impacts on nature—one painting depicts the climate-change-induced wildfires that ravaged her hometown in California, while another represents glacial melt in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park—conveying a sense of gloom and doom is not her aim. “As a natural scientist, I admit that I’m more pessimistic than optimistic,” she says. “But I will always remember one of my professors saying, ‘Do not just be the pessimistic environmentalist; that is not how you create change.’ Whether you’re a painter, city planner, architect, or environmental scientist, I think it’s important to create a vision of a future that’s positive—something to work toward.” An idea as captivating as the imagery that conveys it.