Saturday, September 11, 2010


I was still doing freelance work for my former newspaper back in November, 2003 when I wrote this. It seems appropriate to share it here today, being the 9th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. Note the reference in the story to that event:

As soft as a whisper amid the din of traffic and commercial signs, a pair of unique billboards appeared along Indianapolis-area interstate highways this year, imparting an angelic message of comfort and hope.
And, like angelic apparitions, they vanish after a time only to reappear somewhere else.
The billboards feature images of angels by artist Nancy Noel with the simple message, "God bless Humanity" and "Bless Humanity." They display no Web site, no phone number, no address -- just the attribution, "N.A. Noel."
They first popped up last summer along I-465 on Indianapolis' Eastside and along I-65 at Lebanon. More recently, they've been reported on either side of I-465 on Indianapolis' Westside.
"I pass by one of them on my way to work by the airport," said Amy Sanford Reynolds, who works in information technology for Eli Lilly and Co.
She was moved to send Noel an e-mail saying, "Each day as I drive to work, I am blessed with the joy of your work! I am fortunate to pass a billboard covered with one of your angel prints and the words 'Bless Humanity.'
"It is a much needed reminder of the beauty and worth in life. I hope that everyone else in their early morning rush takes the time to see your art and be reminded of the important things in life."
Added Reynolds: "She's doing a service to everybody just by reminding us that, even though there is all the war and aggression going on, there is something peaceful and positive that we can do for ourselves."
Eric Brotheridge, a former banker now studying for the ministry at Christian Theological Seminary, wrote to Noel on July 24 to say:
"This morning on the southeast corner of the I-465 loop, I noticed the 'God Bless Humanity' billboard. Thank you for a wonderful breath of fresh air!
"It is good to see that the colors of God's creation are more numerous and subtle than red, white, and blue; and to see that God's blessing is invoked for all of creation rather than for one particular country or cause."
Brotheridge emphasizes he is not anti-American.
"I love the blessings this country bestows on me as a citizen, but it's nice that a prophetic voice can be mounted on a billboard aside the interstate. Unfortunately, the call to universality is not one that is heard much in today's culture."
Noel lives and works on her Llandfair Farm southwest of Zionsville, where she also raises horses and llamas.
She characterizes her work as American contemporary realism and has won a wide following with her evocative paintings of animals and children.
A highly successful series of paintings of Amish children helped her become a prosperous artist, publishing more than 100 limited and open edition prints in the past 15 years. Her portraits command prices in the $20,000 range, and new subjects go on a two-year waiting list.
She began painting angels about five years ago, about the time she began to think more deeply about life and spiritual issues.
"I did angels because I decided to stop doing Amish for a while, and I'd wanted to work with kids.
"I really didn't understand what I was doing, and then I started getting all these letters from people who said I'd really inspired them and changed their lives and people saying they were going to commit suicide, and they saw one of my paintings and changed their minds," she said.
"I get thousands of letters like that.
"I got an e-mail just recently from a gal who was in (the World Trade Center on) 9/11. She apparently purchased some of my work and was writing me to tell me how inspirational my angels were to her and how they helped her in her recovery after 9/11.
"She said she got out with some bruises and cuts, and when she got outside, the only memory she had of the inside was all the angels who were swooping down around her and the people who were jumping out of the windows and so forth.
"Once she kind of got herself together and started talking to other people who had gotten out by the skin of their teeth, other people started to say to her, 'This is what I saw -- I saw all these angels in there flying around.' "
The response to the angel paintings led Noel to collaborate with writer Amy Nolfo-Wheeler in 1996 on "All God's Creatures go to Heaven," the illustrated story of Jacob, a child angel.
"One woman came up to me at (the) Penrod (Art Fair) right after I did my book, and she just grabbed my arm. I looked at her and I knew that she had seen an angel. I said, 'You've seen an angel, haven't you?' and she said, 'Yes!' "
Noel, who was raised in the Catholic Church, said her images aren't based on anything she's ever seen but rather what she feels. She's continually surprised that people who claim to have seen an angel tell her she got it right.
So in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Noel found herself wanting to send out a message of comfort.
She'd had some conversations with officials at Lamar Outdoor Advertising about commercial billboard advertising, and one day last spring called Jane Mills, marketing manager for Lamar's Indiana region.
"The war in Iraq had just broken out, and she called and said she wanted to do a couple of billboards," Mills recalled.
She said Noel paid for the vinyl billboard artwork, and Lamar agreed to donate billboards on a space-available basis.
"We've never done anything like this before," Mills said, "But we've had a lot of positive feedback. People just think they're absolutely beautiful. One person said, 'Oh, it just gave me chills.' "
According to Indiana Department of Transportation traffic counts, the drivers and passengers of as many as 70,000 vehicles get a look at the two Westside billboard sites in an average day.
The image on the "Bless Humanity" billboard is a painting aptly titled "Whisper," and it has a special resonance for Kelli Griego, a 27-year-old mother in Troy, Ohio.
Her daughter, Alicia, was stillborn at 32 weeks in June 2002.
Some time after, she opened a catalog of Noel's work to the page that included "Whisper."
"I said, 'Oh, my God! That's my baby.' Even though I lost my baby in infancy, that's exactly how I had pictured she would look when she was older," Griego said.
Griego, who has a 5-year-old and is expecting another child in March, said, "It was a very difficult time for me, but when I looked at that painting, I was reassured. I was sure that my baby was OK. It's like the image was sent from above."
Griego said she and her husband plan to drive the 125 miles from Troy to Indianapolis one of these weekends to see the billboard image that means so much to them.
While Noel may be somewhat mystified at the response her paintings evoke, Amy Reynolds firmly believes it's all happening for a reason.
"I believe a divine muse has touched her for a specific reason for each painting, because each painting evokes an emotion," she said.
"We see what we need to see in them, whether they are comforting, make us smile or give us a remembrance of one we lost."