Most artists resist being categorized, though they usually favor one medium over another. For Noël E. Jefferson, though, the objection isn’t casual: stretched over decades, it’s become the core of her identity.
This highly accomplished media influencer moved from Manhattan’s hip, bustling Tribeca neighborhood to Hendersonville a few years ago, seeking a more peaceful pace of life. But the retirement part didn’t stick. “I guess you could say I’m a Type A personality,” she says, with no apologies.
Jefferson started shooting pictures when she was just 10. By the time she was in her twenties, she was exhibiting her photography and working on commissions in New York, exploring the possibilities of going professional in the medium. But, having already extensively traveled in Europe and Africa, taking shots of architecture and of people and their cultural styles, she was adamant about not sticking to one photographic genre. “I wouldn’t specialize,” she says. “They tried to get me to do that, but I chose not to.”
Specifically, she declined the limiting career of reportage journalism — “I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of running around chasing ambulances.” Instead, she was attracted to artier forms. This included shooting in black and white, composing nude portraiture, and creating in advanced aesthetic subgenres such as wet-plate collodion. Jefferson has had famous collaborators, such as the late Jerry Yulsman — contributor to Playboy and renowned photographer of Jack Kerouac — and she’s picked up major prizes in her long career, including, for her wet-plate-collodion image “Grapes and Cheese,” the $1,000 first prize at the Perkins Center for the Arts’ Annual Juried Show in Moorestown, New Jersey. (The piece sold for $2,500.)
She’s done everything. Or rather, she does everything: Noël the photographer. Noël the videographer. Noël the documentarian. Noël the screenwriter. Noël the activist. Noël the teacher. Noël the actor (she was recently cast as a judge in a movie titled The Mark of the Butterfly, produced by Benjamin Diamond, to be filmed in Charleston and Orangeburg, SC). These are all sides of a woman who regularly uses her creative sensibilities to make social and political statements. After the catastrophic events of 9/11, Jefferson produced a weekly TV show, As-of-Right, galvanizing Senator Daniel Squadron to expedite the rebuilding process at Ground Zero.
One of her current projects is a documentary about the opioid crisis that she’s co-producing with her partner, Michael Sundburg. She hopes to premier the movie at the Tryon International Film Festival this fall, and she’s thrown herself into the timely subject matter, inspired by people she’s met who have been affected — either directly or indirectly — by opioid addiction.
Jefferson has interviewed seven people thus far, and she says, “It’s like everywhere I turn, I’m attracted to them. I ask them if they have a story, and they tell it.” One of the most harrowing tales she’s heard came from a man she met at a wedding in Clyde, in Haywood County — a disabled Vietnam veteran who takes five times the typical daily dose of hydrocodone for injuries incurred in service. The man’s brother suffered from the effects of a motorcycle accident and also become heavily addicted to painkillers; tragically, he shot himself in the head because the pain had become unbearable.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jefferson says. “My message will hopefully tell people that painkillers are not the answer, that they’re a profit for the physicians and pharmacists and the companies that are making them. There are alternatives to addictive painkillers that I’ll discuss in the documentary.”
Between the opioid documentary, video projects, and her job as a screenwriting instructor at Blue Ridge Community College, she would seem to be balancing a full schedule. But in the last three years, since moving here, she’s also become an accomplished painter.
It seems sudden — but Jefferson, whose dramatic personal style was likely influenced by her fashion-designer mother, notes that she comes from an “extremely artistic family.” She also suggests that her predilection for black-and-white photography meant that when she finally faced down a canvas with a brush full of acrylic paint, all those vivid colors had been waiting to burst forth. And her photography background was important in another way: “I was taught to compose photographs within the lens of the camera; therefore, I’ve got the trained eye to focus on the image I want to portray, and expand [from there], letting my inner self out,” she explains.
Inspired by Picasso, Gauguin, Miró, and Dali, Jefferson delivers a scheme that is urgent and urban, surrealistic but underlaid with compassion and emotion. She even works when she sleeps: The artist reveals that she places her semi-finished paintings by her bed at night, “so they’re the last thing I see before going to sleep, and then, when I wake up, if I spot something in them that needs to be changed or added to, I do so.”
Jefferson’s photography has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is on permanent display at the city’s Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street. In Western North Carolina, she’s exhibited paintings at the Asheville Area Arts Council, at Clayspace Co-op in the River Arts District, at Art on 4th in Hendersonville, at the Transylvania County Arts Council in Brevard, and with Tryon Painters and Sculptors.
You won’t ever find her painting trees, flowers, mountains, or any other depictions of the local scenery, however. While she’s pleased to find herself in a deeply artistic community, she admits she was surprised by the number of landscape painters who call WNC home.
“There’s so much natural beauty here,” she comments. “You can look at it. You can pick that flower you love, and take it home and put it in a vase. Every day, I look outside my bedroom window and I see a different sunset. The mountains are beautiful. The landscape changes and changes. It’s here; you can touch it. So why paint it?”
— additional reporting by staff
Noël Jefferson, Hendersonville. For more information, see noeljefferson.com. Also check out Artists Whisper on YouTube, Jefferson’s and Sundburg’s upcoming video project featuring interviews with local visual and performing artists.