The Artist Brewed Early

Juliana Nolen, 9, has taken a dedication to the arts to the next level by selling her paintings to help subsidize her arts education. Because of the homeschooler’s fast-paced schedule she often packs suitcases of her art supplies in the family car so she can have a mobile studio. - Cynthia Woolbright
Juliana Nolen, 9, has taken a dedication to the arts to the next level by selling her paintings to help subsidize her arts education. Because of the homeschooler’s fast-paced schedule she often packs suitcases of her art supplies in the family car so she can have a mobile studio.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

In the reflection of Juliana Nolen’s eyes is swirling color diluted by its immersion in water. As she wipes the tip of her paint brush on a towel, she wiggles happily in her chair and bops up and down twice before selecting her next color. She swishes the brush through some red, one of her favorites, and lays brush to canvas. One, then two swipes make their mark on her masterpiece before the red is swimming along with the other colors.

“Ooh, look at this,” she beams.

Her smile competes for attention against her latest creation. On the canvas is a brightly hued jack-in-the box that almost springs off the canvas. The background is lit with a smattering of brush strokes in shades of blue and golds. A Christmas tree in the background is textured and layered with ornaments.

“There’s my banana woman, oh, and there’s my two little ginger bread guys,” she exclaims.

Thus is the creative process of a 9-year-old. Bouncing around in her chair is essential and making faces at the paint colors is crucial.

Despite her age, Juliana Brielle Nolen has become a sought-after artist. She has sold coffee cup-themed paintings to Mukilteo Coffee, Whidbey’s Coffee, Whidbey Telecom owner Marion Henny, and Vinaccio Coffee in Sultan; numerous originals have gone to individuals. The original painting of “Freedom Cup” was sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Juliana is hoping it’s on prominent display.

Her commercial art endeavors began in June when Juliana was painting a coffee cup as an ongoing still life assignment on curves. Family friend Molly Boggs, happened to see the simple, almost rudimentary, green and red “first cup” and told Vinaccio Coffee owner Mike Jemmett about the piece. Jemmett bought it and he isn’t the only one buying.

On her latest work, still wet from fresh strokes of paint Monday afternoon, the coffee cup at the feet of the jack-in-the-box is one of Nolen’s signature pieces.

She sells her paintings as a way to fund her arts education. The daughter of Paul and Lisa Nolen of Freeland, she has at times lived a life not many people would envy. But looking at her, not many people would guess it by her highly active life and sunny disposition.

life of a vagabond artist

Since she was 2, Juliana has studied dance.

“She’s always been a mover,” Lisa Nolen said. “I always say she turned over to crawl and walk in the same week.”

She now dances six days a week at Island Dance where she attends on scholarship and is a member of the jazz, hip hop and tap competition dance teams.

“I like it, because I learn something new every day,” Juliana Nolen said.

She’s in her third season of performing in the Whidbey Dance Theatre production of “The Nutcracker” and fifth of the annual South Whidbey community talent show. This year she performed as Eliza Doolittle singing “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” along with a brief skit. Away from the stage, she has a thing for photography, geography and peppermint ice cream. Juliana can’t wait to be a dance teacher herself, or maybe a fashion designer — she’s already practicing her sketches.

Susan Vanderwood, a dance instructor at Island Dance and one of Juliana’s competition leaders, sees potential in the pint-sized wonder.

“She has a huge ammount of ability and energy and can do most of what I can give her,” Vanderwood said. “She’s always ahead of herself in many things she does.”

Most of her young life, Juliana and her parents have been homeless. The family currently has a stable living situation at in a leased home in Freeland, along with the family’s six cats, three dogs and four chickens. But a busy schedule has once placed property upkeep as a difficult factor. Earlier this year another weight waas added when Paul traveled to see his ailing father who later died. Time away from work and the accrued travel expenses placed the family further down the financial slope.

“It’s made an unstable financial situation worse,” Lisa Nolen said.


Precarious living situations are all too familiar to the Nolens.

The first time the Nolen family was homeless was a six-month period that lasted until two weeks before Juliana was born in 1995. It was actually the goodness in Paul’s and Lisa’s hearts that left them without a home.

Together, Paul and Lisa began Harbor House in Lakeforest Park, a refuge and safe house for older street kids. They paid for it out of their own pockets — until they ran out of money and lost their home.

They came to Whidbey as a birthday trip for Paul in September 1998 and moved to the island that November, not knowing where they’d live.

They found a place on Bob Galbraeth Road, where they lived for two years.

Lisa sustained a back injury on the job while working in 2000 and the family spun into years of financial mess.

They’ve lived in a Langley bed and breakfast that was shy on business one winter. For a while, they lived in a Clinton rental that also had room for the family’s chickens. Unable to handle the upkeep of the farm and its property, they left.

They lived at the Island county Fairgrounds during the spring of 2002, and for the rest of the year camped out in the yards of friends. They even lived in a barn. They didn’t couch surf — they yard surfed.

For the last two years, they’ve lived in a Freeland rental but have yet to totally recover. All the while, the Nolens do what they can to make ends meet and to ensure Juliana has an education in the arts.

“It’s not easy being homeless, people think it is, but it isn’t,” Lisa Nolen said. “Our money is always tied up in getting stuff in or out of storage or start up fees if we ever do find a place. It’s a constant battle to try to stay on our feet.”

No matter where she’s lived, Juliana has always had a smile and was the constant entertainer, according to her mother.

“Whenever Juliana has drawn pictures of kids or of herself they would always be smiling,” Lisa Nolen said. “Despite any circumstance, she’s been in she’s always drawn herself as a happy kid.”


Lisa Nolen is a part-time teacher at Island Dance. She is also a substitute teacher for South Whidbey primary and intermediate schools and is an on-call sign language interpretor. She can no longer work at in home healthcare as she used to 70 hours per week. Paul works 40 hours a week at Whidbey Telecom. He also works an additional 20 to 30 hours per week washing windows for money to go toward Juliana’s arts fund.

“I don’t mind working two jobs and extra hours if it means giving her a chance to dance and do the things she loves to do,” he said.

It’s a typical family situation for today, according to Paul Nolen.

“People often need to jobs to make ends meet and people often give their all for their kids,” he said.

No matter how little Lisa and Paul Nolen have had, they have always given to others.

“It’s so important to give because at some time you’re going to be the one needing the helping hand,” Paul Nolen said.

No matter how little money they have had, they have always ensured their daughter, who is home schooled, has been involved in the arts — whether it was dance, tae kwon do, or photography. Luckily, people have been kind to them also, as many of Juliana’s activities are subsidized in some way or another.

The family seeks sponsors when they can, and fundraises often. Juliana now sells her art to further her arts career.

Already, Juliana’s paintings have proven to be more than meets the eye.

“People walk up to us at the farmers market to compliment the art and then are surprised when I point down to her as being the artist,” Nolen said.

Juliana sells 10x14 and 16x20 canvas originals framed. She also sells prints and greeting card reprints. On each card is written where the original can be found, along with the name and logo of that business or person. Juliana and Lisa hope to get a card into every state and as many countries as possible.

Everything’s a learning lesson for the homeschooler. From paint strokes, lessons on shading, and even giving back to a cause, it’s all part of the education. As a suggested project for her church, she has paintings and cards that benefit a hospital in Sudan. She also has copies of “Freedom Cup” that can be send to the troops stationed abroad.

Juliana has inherited her parent’s generosity. She doesn’t like being an only child. She can’t stand being without her friends. She can’t wait to be a teenager and wants more brothers and sisters.

“I want someone besides my mom and dad who can tell me ‘good job’ and who I can say ‘good job’ to, too,” she said.

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