Noelle Martinez Blends Art and Hip-Hop with "Back in the Daze" at Phoenix's Willo North Gallery

Phoenix artist Noelle Martinez is pictured in her downtown Phoenix studio.
Phoenix artist Noelle Martinez is pictured in her downtown Phoenix studio.
Nicholas Balanon

A wave of nostalgia is sweeping the nation for a decade that, in reality, was not so long ago. The 1990s brought with it flannel and grunge, crop tops and pop, and gold chains and hip-hop. Each has had a lasting impact on not only fashion and the music scene, but popular culture as well.

The impact the '90s had on Noelle Martinez resonates with her today. The Arizona-grown, 24-year-old artist grew up passionate about many things, but her upcoming solo collection marries two of those loves: art and hip-hop. In the year since her last show, Martinez has spent many a waking moment in her downtown Phoenix studio, creating paintings inspired by legends like Wu Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac Shakur, and Notorious B.I.G.

"Back in the Daze: An Exploration of Afrocentric Music of the '90s" at Willo North Gallery is a twist on iconic images from stoic faces of some of the biggest names from both East and West Coast to catchy, infamous songs like Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" off his 1994 Doggystyle record, produced by Dr. Dre.

See also: Ishmael Dueñas Presents Group Show "Future Shock" at Frontal Lobe in Phoenix

"Growing up in this period when everyone was free and doing what they loved, this show is my tribute to this era and how much it has affected my life," Martinez says.

Saturday's opening reception, Martinez's second gallery event, doubles as the debut show for Willo North's new curator, Nicole Royse, and kicks off the summer season.

Royse, who continues to hold her position as assistant curator at MonOrchid -- one she's had for over a year and a half -- was drawn to the "positive and supportive atmosphere of the [Willo North] gallery and the ability to work closely with local artists in a more intimate setting," she says.

So when owner Kristin Shears approached her about the curator position, it was a no-brainer.

Earlier this year Royse put on her first independently curated collection at monOrchid, "Apache X: Ten Years of Douglas Miles and Apache Skateboards." The spring show drew a lot of attention, particularly during the area's Art Detour event.

Royse had heard impressive feedback about Martinez's debut show, "I Just Woke Up" at Palabra Collective last year, and Shears had met her at Chaos Theory in 2013, so bringing Martinez and her work to the small gallery off Seventh Avenue was bound to happen.

"This exhibition reflects my interests, which [are] Arizona artists, contemporary artwork, and how our state influences their work," Royse says. "My goal is to showcase artwork and artists the community can connect with and get excited about. Martinez mixes her usual comic-infused style with a raw spirit that is captivating and nostalgic. Phoenicians will definitely relate and hopefully be surprised at the fresh spin on this topic."  

Nicole Royse will make her curatorial debut at Willo North with Martinez's show "Back in the Daze."
Nicole Royse will make her curatorial debut at Willo North with Martinez's show "Back in the Daze."
Courtesy of Noelle Martinez/Nicole Royse

It's been a busy year for both Martinez and Royse, between events and media attention. Royse was profiled as an up-and-coming entrepreneur in Arizona Foothills Magazine and both made New Times' list of 100 Creatives. The ongoing series looks at one Valley artist per day, profiling progressive forces leading up to the annual Best of Phoenix issue. The two are, undoubtedly, ones to watch.

Known for her use of color, ("But sometimes I just crave that thick black line," she says), each illustration of "Back in the Daze" focuses on artists who Martinez says has contributed to Afrocentric culture. Pieces range from depictions and portraits to lyrics or song titles. The work is vibrant, colorful, and eye-catching -- difficult to turn-away-from creations representative of an era in popular culture that cannot be ignored, nor its influence overstated.

"Music then told a story, something which is basically hit or miss ... mostly miss, in today's bubblegum hip-hop [and] rap world," she says. "It is for this reason I have dedicated an entire show to that unique period. I'm constantly trying to evolve and apply my style not only to different subject matter, but through distinct mediums as well," -- which she insists one can only appreciate after physically attending a show.

Part of the collection includes a smaller series, named RIP -- "Rest in Portraits." Martinez calls this work her biggest challenge with portraiture, particularly those whose images have been saturated in the mainstream, being out of her comfort zone.

"I took a huge gamble, not knowing how these pieces would turn out," she says. "As I continued to work I found myself more and more excited about what was developing before me. ... My gamble paid off."

"Noelle is a talented artist with a great spirit and such passion with a strong desire to grow and build her work," Royse says. "She already has begun to garner a resume, but I wanted to take her exposure to the next level. She is becoming an important player in the Phoenix art community, and only has bigger things in her future."

Understandably exhausted but nevertheless enthusiastic, both Martinez and Royse have been consumed with the show, with the former claiming, "at this point I can't even fathom tomorrow."

"This show has taken its toll on me and my team. We go from [working] day jobs to staying up 'til 4 a.m. and going back at it the next day," Martinez says. "I mean I know I'm out of my mind being an artist and all, but these guys are truly insane to come along for the ride. For that, I love them."

She may not be planning her next exhibition, or even her next piece, but Martinez won't stop contributing to the local art community any time soon. This show is just the beginning, a crucial step in helping Phoenix develop what she calls, "more flava and steer[ing] away from the repetitive, the monotonous, the everyday."

"Art in this city needs a jumpstart," she says. "I am by no means saying I'm going to single-handedly do the latter, but instead hope my show nudges future art in the right direction.

"It's time for a change and I'm here to help make it happen," she says.

The free opening reception of "Back in the Daze" will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, July 12, at Willo North Gallery, 2811 North Seventh Avenue. The show will be open First and Third Fridays and by request by calling 602-448-9041. Check out and the Facebook invite at

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