By Devon Jackson
Ask Marshall Noice about nearly any of his vividly colored, harmonically composed landscapes and, chances are, the names Mark Rothko (the American abstract expressionist) and Pierre Bonnard (the French post-impressionist) will come up repeatedly. “If you take out the trees from BRIGHTEST FALL LEAVES, you’re looking at a Rothko painting—or my version of one,” says Noice from his gallery-studio in Kalispell, MT. “Without those trees, it’s very abstract.” The purple barn in ONE OF THE ANCIENTS, a building he’s driven past a thousand times, is actually gray. “But the sun was behind it, giving it a purplish cast,” recalls Noice. “And Rothko liked putting purple and orange together quite often.”
Referring to ROBBIN’S WET ORCHARD, a depiction of fiery trees on the shore of Flathead Lake, Noice readily admits to its very Bonnard-like look and also offers some insight—though not too much—into his painterly ways. “Sometimes you have to add a dissonant color to the palette to make one color settle down and behave,” he explains. “The blue-green is essential, otherwise the magenta gets out of control. But I’m never actually thinking all this while I’m painting, not consciously. It’s more a question of ‘what does this painting require for it to make sense?’ It’s as if the painting demands certain things of me to make it work. But I don’t want to sound as if I’m over-intellectualizing my decisions as I paint. It’s all very intuitive.” It’s an intuition he has acquired from many years of study and work in creative fields—first as a musician, then as a photographer, and now as a painter.
Born in Grand Forks, ND, in 1952, Noice spent his early years in Minnesota before moving to Kalispell as a teenager. His father taught science, but there was also an artistic streak in the family; his mother earned her college degree in art, and his uncle worked as a commercial artist for General Mills (where he designed the Betty Crocker spoon logo and the Pillsbury Doughboy). Music, though, was Noice’s first love and his first career.
“In high school all I wanted to do was play rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. He applied to Boston’s Berklee College of Music during his senior year of high school, but when a friend told him about a band in Chicago that needed a drummer, Noice took all of one nanosecond to sign on. Over the next four years, he spent 50 weeks a year on the road touring with Applejack, a Spokane, WA-based rock band. Applejack mostly played covers and opened for some of the ’70s big-name acts, such as the Allman Brothers Band, Cheap Trick, and Tower of Power.
When Noice and the bassist expressed their desire to move to Los Angeles and write and record their own music, the other two band members asked Noice to leave. He did. He briefly considered starting up a new band, but instead returned to Montana, where he spent the next couple years working in construction. When he wasn’t hammering nails, he was usually at the library, which is where he discovered the photography of Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams. Inspired by their black-and-white photographs, Noice decided photography was what he wanted to do.
He bought a large-format Burke & James camera and a tripod, and finagled a key to the darkroom at the local art center. In between construction jobs, he spent two summers in the Banff School of Fine Arts’ photography program. He also had a brief stint as an associate art director of an art magazine. There he discovered his gift for taking pictures of other artists’ work, which led to opening his own photography business. His talent for lighting and shooting bronze sculptures soon put him in high demand. Not long after establishing a niche for himself in photographing art, he branched out into large-scale architectural photography.
It was during the summer of 1977, though, that Noice really learned about light values, composition, and how to create a two-dimensional work that has impact. He was offered a position as an assistant to master photographer Ansel Adams, which he accepted immediately. “I sold all my photographic equipment, except for my grandfather’s 35mm camera, and left for California. I learned so much that I can’t even imagine trying to quantify it all. Just being around him daily and hearing what he was telling his students was educational.”
Ironically, considering the colorist he is today, Noice was never interested in color photography; his personal photographic work has always been in black and white. “Now I’ve moved about as far away from black and white as anyone can,” says Noice, whose wife teasingly credits his color-rich canvases to his having come of age in the psychedelic ’60s.
Although Noice had painted off and on while working as a photographer, it was a confluence of several events that pushed him further into painting. In 1989 sculptor Bob Scriver hired Noice to photograph his collection of Blackfeet artifacts. Noice spent three months immersed in the project. Shortly after finishing, he went to Jackson Hole, WY, for a show of his photography at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Paintings by Theodore Waddell were also on exhibit. “Waddell applies paint very heavily, in a muscular fashion,” says Noice. “Even though he paints mostly horses and cows, his work inspired me to paint looser and in a more expressionistic style.”
Returning home, Noice ordered 100 canvases and multiple tubes of paint. “I told this friend of mine, artist Terry Nelson, that I was going to make 100 oil paintings of Blackfeet artifacts from the collection I had just photographed, and that when I was done I would bring them to him to critique.”
Having decided that Waddell’s approach was what he’d wanted, Noice spent the next three months painting. “The artifacts were all very vivid, colorful in unique and interesting ways,” he says. “The Blackfeet used orange cloth and magenta beads and porcupine quills with yellow ochre. All in one piece. That was probably the catalyst for my approach to color.”
A key moment occurred when Noice was painting a war shirt that once belonged to a Blackfeet chief. While painting a portion of the shirt decorated with white weasel tails, the weasel tails changed into . . . aspen trees. “It was like that optical illusion that looks like a wine glass from one perspective but an old lady’s face from another,” says Noice. “I’d been painting these vertical elements that changed into a stand of aspens.
“After those 100 paintings, I’d found what I was looking for in terms of an art process. Color doesn’t trump composition in my work. They’re pretty much on equal footing,” he notes. And while he didn’t know it at the time, his way of combining dissonant and complementary colors to create tension had a name: analogous color harmony. “I’d been a very diligent student of Bonnard and Rothko until Joe Abbrescia put that moniker on my approach to color,” says Noice of the late Montana painter.
Noice, who works in both oil and pastel, generally paints with pastels en plein air, where the breezes can blow away the dust. He may return to his studio with finished pieces ready to frame, or use his field studies as reference for larger pastels or for his oil paintings. “The fundamental benefit of working on location is having immediate contact with my subject matter. I need to feel it, to taste it, to experience it. There’s no substitute for that. And you can’t get that working from a photograph,” says Noice. “I’ve spent a lifetime relating to the landscape in one way or another, and being outdoors is an essential part of my artistic life. I get direct inspiration from being in nature.”
Noice also adheres to something he learned as a musician: When in doubt, leave it out. “Sometimes quitting early is enough,” says Noice. “I’d rather have a painting with looseness, one that looks unfinished, than one that’s overworked. I prefer a simple approach to a very direct idea.” Witness his “think it, do it” mantra. “I don’t second-guess intuitive nudges. If I have an idea, I move on it as soon as possible. It’s part of how and why I paint,” he notes. It’s also why he sometimes lays on as many as 15 applications of paint to a single painting, and why his barns are purple, his trees red, and his canvases a profusion of technicolor landscapes.
“Even though my paintings are not in any way literal, part of my goal is that my paintings have to resonate for me with the spirit of the land, with what attracted me to that spot,” says Noice. “I respond to the landscape on a subliminal level, and what I want to show in my paintings are those sublime aspects that I experience in nature.”
Featured in June 2008