Story by Carlo Wolff

The attic studio where she creates fearless work is an oasis for Lauren Mckenzie Noel, a gifted artist who left her sunny Florida home for grayer Cleveland three years ago.

Mckenzie is 30, of mixed race, recently divorced, and the mother of Dylan, 10, and Keegan, 9. The three live in a big, old duplex in Cleveland Heights. The family moved here for the schools; Keegan is on the autism spectrum and non-verbal, though he writes on an iPad and invents his own toys. Getting him special education was the right and necessary move, Mckenzie says.

She spends her days in the studio while her boys are at school. “This is my sacred space,” she says of the studio. “I come here to have my therapy session.”

This exuberant, expressive woman doesn’t want her sons to view life through the lens of limitation, so for her, “US,” a two-part show last spring in which she collaborated with the boys, was a particularly rewarding family affair.

“I really feel like God gave me the ability to speak to him through my work and I wanted to nurture that,” she says of Keegan, adding, as a society, “we don’t talk a lot about the siblings” of those on the spectrum, so the show was also “Dylan’s story.”

Her own story is one of struggle and survival – and, perhaps, success: She will be featured in separate shows in Cleveland in August and September. Her work sells for $200 to $9,000, and for “SELF,” a solo show, prices will range from $1,050 to $9,600. Mckenzie has come a long way since she became a full-time artist. 

Seven or eight years ago, she was living in her native West Palm Beach struggling to build a cake business. It wasn’t working. Around that time, Keegan was diagnosed, throwing her life out of balance. Serendipitously, her landlord commissioned a work of art by her, “it kind of just blossomed from there, and the boys were – and have always been – my key motivation.”

“Dylan” (2018) by Lauren Mckenzie Noel and her sons, Dylan and Keegan, from the artist’s “US” series. 36 x 48 inches on wood panel. Mixed media: oil paint, acrylic and oil pastel. Courtesy of the artist.

No limits

Mckenzie’s art is about pushing boundaries and changing perceptions. Her topics are rich: being female, being a woman of color, family. “SELF,” which will consist of nudes of Mckenzie, her two sisters, her mother and sister-in-law, aims to celebrate women in various shapes and stages. These nudes, which will go on display Aug. 17 at KINK Contemporary, are vibrant and vigorous; Mckenzie is no shrinking violet, nor does she portray other people as such. The palette of these proud nudes is earthy, the brushstrokes are swashbuckling, and the revelation – a truism, even a cliché, to Mckenzie – is that women are beautiful, with no need to conform or be idealized.

The “SELF” show will be “centered around trauma, motherhood, sisterhood and the conversations and relationships we have with our body,” Mckenzie says. “I feel like that has pushed me to be incredibly vulnerable. It’s very realistic, so it exposes a lot.” She doesn’t consider these nudes “sexual at all.” Rather, they’re realistic, she says: “I’ve had a lot of messages from other mothers – ‘Oh, my God, my stomach looks like that’ and ‘Thank you for painting me’ – seeing themselves in the work.”

At times, she feels “most beautiful when I’m painting myself,” she says, adding the “SELF” paintings are about “having a body that’s stretched, that’s grown, that’s aged and is beautiful in all its shapes and forms. It feels good to encourage other people through your work.”

Mckenzie wants “SELF” to stimulate discussion about motherhood. Women’s roles have always been very restricted, she says, adding “your role as a mother doesn’t have to be limited or be your only face.”

Anna Young and Michael Marras are fans of Mckenzie. They’re excited to display “SELF.” 

“What drew us most to Lady Noel’s work was her ability to capture an individual’s identity through her perspective,” the co-founders of KINK Contemporary write in a statement, referring to Mckenzie by her social media moniker. “Every execution of a painting is applied with unique interpretation. Lauren’s portraits of people communicate fiercely with their eyes. Very few artists can accomplish this connection in a portrait, specifically a contemporary one. 

“Her preferred color palette also speaks for itself. The vibrancy of her bold color choices parallels her chosen figure’s impressive gaze. In the few months we have been working with Lauren to prepare for the upcoming show, her body of work has already evolved notably in a new direction.”

Other examples of Mckenzie’s art will be on display Sept. 20 through Nov. 16 in “seenUNseen,” a show featuring African American artists at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood.

“Unburdened” (2019) by Lauren Mckenzie Noel from the artist’s “SELF” series. 32 x 42 inches on canvas. Material: oil paint. Courtesy of the artist.

Growing up multicolored

Mckenzie’s American mother is of Scottish, Irish and Welsh descent. Her father is Jamaican, with roots in Ghana and Benin.

What does being multicolored feel like? “Sometimes it sucks,” she says. “Sometimes, as much as I don’t like the box, it’s nice to fit in a box, especially when it has to do with race. I definitely don’t have it as hard as my Jamaican side of the family, but I constantly feel like I have to fight for my identity.”

She had “some trouble” during her senior year at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach; she “got into some medicinal things and I was pretty angry for a little bit as a kid. There were things that had happened to me in my past that were suppressed, and I think a lot of that piled up; I did a lot of self-sabotaging. A lot of drinking was involved, a lot of skipping school.”

Somehow, she righted herself, and says she’s “doing fantastic,” raising her kids and creating paintings. 

She feels a special sense of accomplishment when it comes to her murals, which included a temporary work on LAND Studio’s café art wall in Public Square as well as permanent pieces at Fairfax Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, the Tremont Athletic Club location in University Circle and at The Cleveland Flea’s business incubator, The Creative Clubhouse.

Perhaps her highest-profile work is a mural at East 36th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. Completed last year, the mural required Mckenzie to ride a cherry picker three stories high, and she’s scared of heights. “There were some tears while I was up on that lift,” she says, “but I never want to shy away from things that terrify me.” She still gets “a high” from overcoming that hurdle. “What’s the point of life if you’re not constantly challenging yourself and growing?”

As she worked on that mural, a community dialogue began. 

“The area is predominantly black over there, and I just remember some of the conversations I had with some of the local individuals,” she says. “There were times I actually cried, because you don’t realize how much it’s needed to have representation until you have representation. There was even a bus of kids, who were predominantly black, and seeing me up on that lift, (they were) like, ‘Oh, there’s this black girl who is painting this giant mural in their city, which hasn’t happened.’

“Most of my work is centered around portrait work, and it is of people of color predominantly. So, the conversations there have been, also, incredible. And the support I’ve gotten through that work has been amazing through my own community.”

“For Awhile Now” (2019) by Lauren Mckenzie Noel from her “Life in Color” series as seen in her home studio. 48.3 x 70 inches on canvas. Materials: acrylic, soft pastel, oil paint. Courtesy of the artist.

Talking things over

Mckenzie wants her art to spark conversations about gender and race. As a biracial person, she is “figuring out where I fit in the scheme of things,” she says. The issues, for her, are complex and go beyond the personal.

“It’s an interesting time to be black and white, it’s an interesting time to be anything right now,” she says.

Mckenzie wishes “it wasn’t about picking sides, but right now it’s very important for me to be an ally to my fellow black brothers and sisters and making sure I’m speaking up for them because I’m light-skinned, and with that comes privilege. I want to make sure I’m using my privilege to do good.”

Being a woman in a white-male-oriented art scene represents another  hurdle, particularly in Northeast Ohio.

“I want to make sure that that’s not a limitation, either,” she says. “So, it’s guns blazing to make sure I have space in a room.

“I don’t know too many galleries that represent women of color here. I’m pretty sure I’m the first, or one of the first, women of color to do a mural here – which is an issue. There aren’t many shows geared toward women of color,” she says. “There’s not a rainbow. We don’t really have a rainbow of representation in Cleveland.”

The West Side is “very white,” Mckenzie says, while there “is more of a rainbow on the East Side”; there’s a “line straight down downtown.” She’s still getting used to what she considers the lack of diversity here.

“Cleveland, I think it has potential, I think it’s trying to change and evolve,” she says. “I just think there’s so much work that needs to be done to bridge those gaps, and also to make sure it’s being done in the right way.”

Mckenzie seeks to infuse Cleveland’s cultural scene with color as vivid as it is in her portraits. 

“I love color, and Florida is super, super colorful,” she says. “It also goes in with my Jamaican heritage; it’s a very colorful island. I’ve never been afraid of color. I think we’re meant to celebrate color. I think the world needs far more color.” CV

“Bernice” (2019) by Lauren Mckenzie Noel from the artist’s “Blind Contour” series. 52½ x 56 inches on canvas. Materials: oil paint, charcoal, oil paint,  acrylic. Courtesy of the artist.

Lauren Mckenzie Noel

“SELF,” a solo show of new works, will be on view from Aug. 17 to Sept. 20 at KINK Contemporary, 1305 W. 80th St., Suite 103, Cleveland, at 78th Street Studios.

Mckenzie will also be part of the group show, “seenUNseen,” which will be on view from Sept. 20 to Nov. 16 at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, 1834 E. 123rd St., Cleveland.

Lead image: Lauren Mckenzie Noel in her home studio in Cleveland Heights. | Photo / Michael C. Butz