Many people describe the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of loss. Loss suffered through death, financial instability, and time trapped in isolation.
But one local emerging artist saw her painting career borne out of that same isolation.
“Before, I was someone that was very much like work, work, work, climb the corporate ladder, work 12 hours a day like your self worth comes from it,” said Crystal Noir. “The pandemic forced me to just take a completely different track … It forced me to be super introspective.”
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Noir’s latest series, Shades of Self, is being displayed at a PoMoArts Centre exhibit until May 4. This is her third exhibit in two years.
Before the pandemic, Noir said painting was simply a hobby. Now she’s aiming to leave the corporate world behind and become a full-time artist.
Noir said she’s always been “artsy,” but never specifically used painting as an outlet.
She currently works in fashion, something she described as artistic storytelling, but with colourful textiles instead of paint and canvas.
After B.C. health authorities increasingly stressed social distancing, Noir’s job involved more and more work from home, which freed up time for her to hone her skill with a brush.
One day, an art teacher passing by Noir painting in a public park mistakenly thought she was a long-time artist, and was shocked to hear she had just begun.
“She really was astounded by that, and told me that I should keep going,” Noir said, adding she was flattered, but not entirely convinced. “To me, looking at them, I didn’t think that they were that great. I just thought that it was really fun to do. It was really meditative. It was really relaxing.”
But hearing consistent feedback from others in the art world led to new confidence.
The next year, Noir took 10 different art classes, workshops or online mentorships. She did the same the following year.
She said she was able to see how quickly her skills progressed in comparison to her peers.
“Even the people and teachers in the classes with me would comment on that,” Noir said. “It’s just something that naturally just comes to me.”
She scored her first exhibition after visiting the Imagine Van Gogh: Immersive Experience event in Vancouver in 2021 and connecting with the program director, who was impressed by her work.
Noir said her artwork falls under the afro surrealism genre, adding she always paints her work in a series, each addressing a specific subject matter.
PoMoArts describes Noir’s Shades of Self series as a visual exploration of personal identity, examining themes of shifting identity, self-reflection and growth.
Her second exhibit, Guilty as Skin, was held in New Westminster last February, and explored tension between racial minorities and the prison industrial complex.
Noir said her style often features a deconstructed head, using symbolism and metaphor to convey different meanings through texture, colour and imagery.
“I think that if you see a piece, you can recognize that piece would be associated to me,” Noir said. “They branch out and look very different depending on what series they’re in.”
Lending voice to people with mental health struggles, and underrepresented communities is a focus of Noir’s work.
She said she tries to challenge the European art tradition of what’s acceptable in portraitures featured at art galleries.
“There’s a lot of double intersectionality. Painters like myself normally aren’t chosen to be in a lot of galleries,” Noir said.
Work on her fourth series is already in its early stages.
Working with oil paints requires time to dry for each layer, so Noir works on a minimum of two to three pieces at once, and her series are generally completed all at once.
Noir said she has an upcoming residency at the Shadbolt Center for the Arts at Deer Lake in Burnaby, where she’ll have the opportunity to work on large-scale pieces.
She said she wants to try using new paints, and integrate sculptures, landscapes, nature and text calligrams into her work, which has predominantly featured portraits.
“I want to make huge, monumental pieces – bigger than I’ve ever painted before,” Noir said.
Transitioning to art career
Splitting time between her artistic pursuits and corporate fashion career is becoming increasingly difficult, according to Noir.
She said it’s a hard decision to leave a steady income behind, and she still needs that balance until she can transition fully.
Noir said the market for original artwork is complicated, and she often feels disadvantaged because she doesn’t have the network that’s sometimes gained through an university arts degree.
“I didn’t go the traditional sort of route,” Noir said. “I didn’t go to Emily Carr and leave with like a whole bunch of (contacts for) faculty and people and galleries.”
Additionally, she said the work is very personal, and she’s still weighing what it means to distribute to the world as her new career starts to “snowball.”
But she is certain she would never have become a serious painter if the pandemic hadn’t rocked her off the corporate trajectory.
“I always truly believed it was something I always had in me, I was just doing it in a different avenue,” Noir said. “I would never have even slowed down long enough to pick up the paintbrush, look inside, even think about storytelling from a personal aspect.”