Whimsy and magic: New exhibition spotlights Indiana artist Nancy Noël

Walking through the heavy black curtains into the dimly lit space, visitors to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis are transported into the studio of a world-renowned artist.

Well-worn brushes and other artistic supplies rest on a paint-splattered table that had once been the work space of Nancy Noël. Soothing and colorful paintings, exuding whimsy and a sense of magic, cover the walls.

Ambient sounds of insects and chirping birds drift through the space, recreating what it sounded like when the windows were open in Noël’s Zionsville studio.

“Having the objects from her life, and seeing everything in life that inspired her, it’s just very peaceful here,” said Monica Humphrey, director of exhibits and interactive media for the museum. “You have the ambient noise in this space, and it all just comes together.”

Noël’s work and life are the focus of the newest exhibition at the Children’s Museum, “The Paintings of N.A. Noël.” The Hoosier artist, known for her serene depictions of animals, children and her travels, painted more than 1,000 original works throughout her career. Millions of her prints have been sold around the world.

After her death in 2020, her sons Alexander Noël-Kosene and Michael Noël-Kosene wanted to find a way to honor Noël by partnering with a cultural institution where she had such a close relationship.

At the Children’s Museum exhibition, Noël’s paintings will find a new generation of viewers to inspire.

“We grew up around this art, and at times maybe took it for granted. Having our mother in our lives was everything. So now to work with my brother and the Children’s Museum to bring this, it almost is re-enlightening to the impact of her work,” Michael Noël-Kosene said. “Some of it feels like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

More than 40 of Noël’s paintings are included in the exhibit, each spotlighting the artist’s delicate vision and talent.

The ethereal form of an angel, surrounded by pastel-tinged aura, seems to drift off the canvas in “Serenity.” Colorful dresses and robes drape over a regal-looking woman is captured in “The Matriarch.” The titular black-and-white animals emerge from bouquets of flowers in “Mother and Baby Zebra.”

“The variety of art that she did over her lifetime, it’s wonderful to have multiple entry points for people,” Humphrey said. “Kids and adults can come in and see the different types of art, the storytelling and what memories and emotions are invoked. There are just so many ways to jump into the art here.”

Much of the exhibition showcases Noël’s work alongside actual items from her family’s home.

A vulnerable child clutches a stuffed bunny in “Velveteen Rabbit.” In a glass case next to the painting, the well-loved rabbit that was featured in the piece is displayed. The antique tricycle featured in “Alex With Trike” is set up in front of the painting.

“We’ve looked at not only her paintings, but everything that inspired her,” Humphrey said.

Noël started painting in the 1970s, and for decades, was one of the most iconic artists working in Indiana. Initially, she went by her initials, N.A. Noël, disguising her gender because she believed male artists received more respect and credibility during that period.

But her contemporary impressionist work quickly caught the eye of art critics and collectors from around the world, launching her as an international star. She died on Aug. 16, 2020.

Throughout her career, Noël often worked with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis on a variety of projects. Featured in the exhibition are a series of posters that she created for the museum.

“She’s been a friend of the museum for years,” Humphrey said. “She was an important member of the arts community, so having her work here and being able to celebrate with Alex and Michael was really important to the museum.”

Noël and museum officials had discussed in the past having an exhibit focused on her work, but the details never came together. Following her death last year, Alexander Noël-Kosene and Michael Noël-Kosene reached out to the museum to see how to make it happen.

“We really wanted to do something with them, because we had all of this incredible art,” Alexander Noël-Kosene said. “We thought it was about time, and the museum moved very quickly to put a team together.”

Noël’s varied and expansive body of work allowed for museum staff to include a number of different ways for people to really immerse themselves in the paintings.

“We wanted to show how versatile an artist she was. A lot of artists are known for one style. Mother certainly had certain styles she was known for, but she really painted a lot of subject matter,” Alexander Noël-Kosene said. “You could be in this space, and think it was filled with works of different artists. Showing her versatility was really important.”

Humphrey also tried to recreate the studio space where Noël worked. A wall-sized photograph shows her workshop as it was during her life, while personal art supplies and tools are arranged in display cases.

Families can take a seat at tables arranged around the space and create their own artwork, from family portraits to sketching items that Noël included in some of her paintings.

“We really wanted to look at this as an exhibition that features art and shows how accessible it is. You don’t have to be a professional artist to enjoy it,” Humphrey said.

For Alexander Noël-Kosene and Michael Noël-Kosene, seeing their mother’s work on display in such a prominent exhibition has been a surreal but healing process.

“Going through the experience of our mother’s passing was such a crushing experience, especially because she had another hundred paintings she wanted to paint in her life,” Alexander Noël-Kosene said. “This is the one thing I’ve been looking forward to to distract me from the grief that we’ve felt for the past year. It’s kept me going, and now to see it here, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is.”

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Ryan Trares is a senior reporter and columnist at the Daily Journal. He has long reported on the opioids epidemic in Johnson County, health care, nonprofits, social services and veteran affairs. When he is not writing about arts, entertainment and lifestyle, he can be found running, exploring Indiana‚Äôs craft breweries and enjoying live music. He can be reached at [email protected] or 317-736-2727. Follow him on Twitter: @rtrares