Nancy Noel In Her Own Words
By Tammy LeRoy. Photography by Adam Parsons
Since Nancy Noel announced the sale of one of Zionsville’s beloved icons — the Sanctuary gallery — the rumors have flown. Some far-out theories have even reached stratospheric levels, but “Zionsville Community Newsletter” learned that to get to the truth, one only has to ask.
The Sanctuary on Main Street has been home to the artist’s work since 2006. Noel is one of the most celebrated American contemporary impressionists living today. Her sensitive portraits of children and animals made her a household name in Indiana, but her artwork is loved worldwide. From the prestigious National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., to a remote village in Africa to the homes of notable celebrities, Noel’s work has no boundaries and has inspired millions.
It all started here in the Hoosier state. Noel studied art at Notre Dame and opened her first art gallery in Broad Ripple in 1970. Since 2006, most of the artist’s work has been shown in the Sanctuary on Zionsville’s main street, and prior to that, a small gallery inside her warehouse at 73rd Street and Zionsville Road. “People just found me there,” Noel recalls. “One open house we held in that tiny space drew over 3,000 people.”
If you’ve never visited the Sanctuary, the best way to describe it is breathtaking. Built in the 19th century, the former church that houses the 11,000-square-foot gallery features ceiling heights of 24 feet and a chandelier measuring 8 feet in diameter in the main room. Even more awe-inspiring are more than 100 original works of art — some as large as 10-by-12 feet — which are on view as visitors meander through rooms and stairways throughout the structure.
It’s true that if you haven’t taken the opportunity to experience the Sanctuary and Noel’s collection, time may be running out. Noel has made the decision to move her original paintings to a gallery with more exposure — likely in Aspen or New York. She has already listed the Sanctuary for sale at $1.85 million.
Until a new owner takes possession, gallery manager Jane Jimison says the Sanctuary will continue to house Noel’s work and will be open as usual. She says private events such as weddings are still being scheduled to take place there in 2014.
What has prompted the move? Collectively, Noel’s Indiana patrons have accumulated the bulk of her portraits and early paintings, but much of her work resides in personal collections located primarily in New York and California. Today, the majority of buyers are from out of state. Moving her work to a location that has more international exposure will give her a greater audience and will allow her career to reach new levels.
“Any artist who would be capable of taking their work to a higher level would do so,” Noel says. “Few successful artists open their own galleries. There’s painting and then there’s business. Most artists can’t do both.” Noel admits that running a gallery, especially one with a restaurant, does take her away from her first love, which is painting. She’s looking forward to having more time to create.
Although she has long felt such a move was eminent, the wheels really began to turn for Noel last year. A unique opportunity was an eye-opener for the artist when she learned how major art collectors and other successful artists felt about her work. During Art Basel in Miami Beach — an important show in the art world — a gallery owner asked to display her work. Among the exhibits were three Noel originals measuring 12-by-10 feet, 10-by-10 feet and 7-by-9 feet.
Jimison says she observed people’s reactions in Miami Beach. “A collector who had already purchased $4 million worth of art said to Nancy, ‘You don’t belong here — your work belongs in a museum,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Your stuff is too good to be hanging here.’” Jimison noted comments from other artists as well. One successful painter who stood in line to meet Noel commented, “You are the real deal and I’m humbled to talk to you.”
Although her audience has expanded over the years, Noel attributes much of her success to the people of Indiana who she says catapulted her career through their ongoing support. The good news is that Noel’s growing recognition as an artist will make those early works even more valuable for Hoosier collectors.
Noel has realized amazing achievements as an artist, especially considering her early journey. The second of six children, she was the only blonde and clearly different from her siblings. For one thing, she is dyslexic and struggled with schoolwork. “I came from a family that was highly educated — graduating from Harvard and Cornell and other Eastern colleges,” Noel says. “My parents would look at me and wonder, ‘What are we going to do with this child?’”
She says her artistic talent was the only thing she had going for her. “I definitely would have been voted the least likely to succeed by anyone I went to grade school with,” Noel says. “But now I know that I couldn’t paint the way I do if it wasn’t for the dyslexia. I always wanted the Sanctuary to be an inspiration for people with so-called disabilities.”
Her academic shortcomings and sense of not fitting in affected Noel’s self-esteem way past the time she became successful. “For years, I had to rely on what people who were writing me were saying to know I had any value at all,” she recalls.
Noel says the Sanctuary has been an important part of her journey. Creating the space the way it is today has been a labor of love — coupled with more than $1 million in total renovation costs. But even before the first nail was driven, Noel says she was already inspired by the place itself. “There was always a great energy surrounding it,” she says. “If you’ve never seen the Sanctuary at night by candlelight — the place just transforms itself.”
In fact, visitors comment frequently on the Sanctuary’s tranquil and transcendent ambiance. “It’s blessed and it’s magical,” Jimison says. “Incredible things happen there on a daily basis. Being in the Sanctuary is a very emotional experience for some people. It’s a very spiritual place.”
The gallery houses a range of works of all sizes as well as a gift shop on the lower level. Noel’s largest paintings go for $250,000 or more, but some of her small originals are priced as low as $1,000, and her limited edition prints are so reasonable that Noel’s art can hang in anyone’s home. “I’ve always insisted that my work remains accessible to everyone,” she says.
Noel has a strong connection to many of her paintings, which she finds difficult to explain. “Jane has to do the gallery tours because I just can’t deal with all the emotion I feel around my paintings,” she says. There are even a few paintings Noel feels she can’t sell. Fortunately, she is a prolific painter who has turned out hundreds of works.
A new chapter
The Zionsville farm that houses Noel’s barn-loft studio will remain her home base. Still, she’s excited to embark on a new adventure. “I’m never content to rest on what I’ve done,” Noel says. “As soon as you think you’re good enough, you have a problem. I’m a long way from thinking that, but I do know it’s time for me to take the next step.”
Still, she says she’ll only be comfortable being away from home for short periods of time. “I have to put my feet on the ground,” Noel says. “I have to be around my horses and dogs. I have to have a place where I can breathe and smell the earth. I can’t think of a better place for me than where I am. This is where I raised my kids, and I love the Zionsville community.”
Although giving up the Sanctuary and moving her work out of Indiana is a big step, Noel feels confident about her decision. She says one of her more recent paintings, “Letting Go,” symbolizes this step.
“I’m not at all afraid to take my art somewhere else,” Noel says. “I never have angst around what I’m going to paint next. When I go into my studio, I’m just following my bliss. I absolutely love what I do.”
Noel she says she will always be thankful for her local supporters. “The people in Indiana have believed in me,” she says. “They’ve given me the courage to go forward.”
Her hope for the Sanctuary is that a new owner would continue to hold events and offer a restaurant so that the public can still experience the beautiful building she fell in love with. Perhaps, she says, it could remain a gallery that exhibits the work of other Indiana artists, adding, “Maybe it’s someone else’s turn.”