Four huge oil paintings rest against the only free wall in Noah Ptolemy’s small downtown studio. Another painting is propped up on the bed, four or five more are stacked under the window and a work in progress sits alone in the center of the room. The lone countertop is home to cups of paint instead of cups of coffee and on the floor a large white sheet crisscrossed with colors serves as carpeting. The slightly acrid chemical smell of oil paint fills the sparse room. The only sign beyond the bed that this is a living space and not just a workspace is an electric toothbrush next to the kitchen sink.
Ptolemy, 26, is clear that he chooses to live this life—surrounded by his artwork in a studio apartment no larger than the average dorm room. He doesn’t feel oppressed in such a small space, but his work focuses on those who do. His abstract oil paintings are layered with images and words that represent what he identifies as the nemos of society, nemo being the Latin word for “no one.”
“I’ve seen some of the most amazing enlightened people that work in furniture delivery,” says Ptolemy, who works as a cashier at the Hip Strip Holiday gas station. “I’ve become friends with security guards that look like they’re going to croak any minute that have given me some of the most needed advice and counsel at that moment in time.”
Looking at one of his large-scale collage-style paintings, “Elpé,” Ptolemy points to the words “salary slime” written across the top in white and explains that the pursuit of corporate promotion is one of many ways people confine themselves within society. Among the skeletons of dead nemos and demonic angels Ptolemy has written, in the center of the painting: “the most secure people.” The words, he says, represent the false sense of security that comes with possession.
“The most secure people…are praying to angels, like, ‘God I hope I get some sort of meaning to my life,’” he says, motioning to different characters on the canvas. “But you have to take the first step, you have to create your own reality. Nothing just comes knocking at your door, you open it and your life is transformed. You have to make it happen. It’s not Jesus and it’s not going to church and it’s definitely not your salary or your pension.”
The layers of meaning in “Elpé” are typical of Ptolemy’s work. He paints his canvases in phases, often working on several simultaneously. With just a week before his upcoming First Friday showing at The Loft, Ptolemy is still adding dashes of red to one of his new pieces.
“In one out of five, an image always starts to emerge that I really like,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I was just working on one piece, because not all those multiple thoughts are going on at the same time.”
Ptolemy has a busy mind, created by a busy life. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he moved with his mother to Japan when he was 5. His mother taught English as he attended public school and became fluent in Japanese. At 13 his family moved to Hawaii, introducing Ptolemy to the United States for the first time.
“I’ve basically always been the minority,” he says, adding that he associates better with those overlooked by society because of his experiences growing up.
Since he left home at 19 he hasn’t stayed anywhere for long; he calls the Greyhound bus one of his best friends. He came to Missoula about a year ago straight from New York City, where he was trying to make his way into the art scene. He quickly became disillusioned with the idea of tackling the Big Apple after a fall-out with his social group. Then, feeling as if he’d failed in New York, on a whim he took a friend up on an invitation to Missoula.
After a couple months here, unimpressed by the art scene and anxious to move on, Ptolemy was ready to climb back on the Greyhound when he happened upon Nasir Abbas Jaffery selling jewelry on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street. Abbas offered to let Ptolemy sell his artwork alongside him, and so for three months last spring he got his first Missoula publicity on the sidewalk. With exposure came interest, and soon Ptolemy found he had secured eight art shows at various coffee shops and clothing stores.
“A lot of people were thoroughly interested, they wanted to know my story,” Ptolemy says. “Looking back it was a good way to start in Missoula.”
Even as Ptolemy’s paintings are being finished for his ninth Missoula show, the vagabond artist is already thinking about future endeavors. Part of the reason his two-year foray into selling art has been so prolific is that he’s always moving, both literally from city to city and thematically in the social statements he paints. It’s unclear how much longer Ptolemy will be in Missoula or what commentary he’ll tackle next, but while he’s weighing his options he hopes those viewing his art will be doing the same.
“What I would like them to do,” he says, “is maybe question, maybe ask themselves, ‘Is my questioning done?’”
Noah Ptolemy’s exhibit, Denture King, will be on display for the First Friday ArtWalk at The Loft Friday, Feb. 2, beginning at 5 PM. Music by Ear Candy Music follows the reception.