by Lee Gutowski
Davey Noble’s business is art – wait, strike that. His life is art. It’s doing his art, which is the same as doing his life. Since 2020, he’s run his custom framing and art restoration shop, Noble Arts, out of a storefront in Riverwest, and (go figure) he loves his work.
Noble comes by it honestly, as the youngest of three brothers “from a very hippie family of entrepreneurs, art dealers,” to use his words. His parents both owned successful art galleries in Milwaukee – Old Masters in the East Side’s Prospect Mall, and Noble Gallery at Grand Avenue Mall downtown. “They were selling really cool artwork,” he recalls. “It was a very creative environment to grow up in, and to have that sense that art had such value that we were actually able to live a good life doing that.”
“They were crushing it in the 70s and 80s,” Noble says of his parents’ endeavors. When his folks split up, though, the businesses went away; as Davey explains, it “wasn’t so much the recession as the divorce” that did it. “And the lawyers took all the money … My parents ran successful businesses but managing the affairs of the business was another thing. I mean, they were hippies that loved their employees, but they both were getting ripped off. Any cash that went through the till was just gone.”
After the divorce, his mom lived on the East Side and his dad in Brown Deer. “I would do the back and forth almost every week. It was nice because my brothers (would be in Brown Deer a lot) and I was able to kick it by myself on the East Side. … I remember reading Art Muscle magazine and having 35-cent cheeseburgers at Oriental Drugs. They sold all kinds of candy, notebooks, hardware in the back where you could get like batteries for your Sony Walkman. It was a one-stop-shop for the 9-year-old me.”
Davey is definitely one to launch himself directly into what moves him. Apparently his first artistic interest was choreography; in elementary school he recruited the soccer team to dance in a musical project he envisioned. “I remember thinking a soccer team would be good for it because they were accustomed to being coached and they’d be more compliant,” he laughs. (Along the same line, he tells a story of laying around in the living room watching TV with his brothers as a kid. “You know that eventually someone’s going to get up and go to the kitchen, so you just wait til they do and ask them to grab you a glass of water or something while you just keep laying there,” he chuckles. “My mom always says about me, ‘Davey is perfectly capable of accomplishing complex tasks however he prefers to have others do them for him.’”)
Noble gravitated toward drawing and painting, but when he failed art classes for three years running at Wauwatosa East High School (for “inappropriate subject matter”), he eventually turned his attention to fashion photography, partially due to inspiration from a girlfriend at the time who was a model.
After Davey graduated high school, he made his way to L.A. to pursue fashion photography. He ended up doing a lot of stuff out there – including bussing tables at a coffee shop and booking Tuesday nights at a music club.
Noble was making contacts and having some great experiences, but he also “was basically living in my car for a few months.” After about 6 months of travelling around southern California trying to get fashion gigs, he called it a wrap. “I left there because L.A. is a soulless suckhole of a place. But it sure smells nice at night. There are flowers everywhere … the smell of lavender in the morning air … that stuff’s great.”
Next was a stop in Seattle to give that a go, but he was only there for a couple of months. He came back to Wisconsin, but before coming home to Milwaukee, he sidetracked through Madison to ease the sting of not being out West anymore. “It was easier to hear people say ‘Wait, I thought you were in Madison’ rather than ‘I thought you were out in Seattle or L.A.’ or whatever,” he says with amused self-deprecation.
Back in Milwaukee, he continued to pursue his art/life. He built and refinished furniture; deejayed at local clubs like the River Horse and Franks Power Plant; made screen prints; painted and hustled his tail off selling or trading his art down in Chicago when he could.
Super Noble Brothers hit the big screen
Davey and his brothers, Andy and Tommy, were the subjects of a documentary film called Super Noble Brothers produced by a then-UWM film student named Mark Escribano (who is now plying his trade in L.A. as a filmmaker and photographer). The film was a decade in the making and hit some film festivals in the U.S. and Europe in 2007 and 2008. It follows the path of Nobles in their unflaggingly devoted pursuit of inhabiting their own artistic visions – and maybe even making a living doing it. (Davey’s brothers are both record geeks — “crate-diggers” if you will — and run their own businesses: Andy’s is We Buy Records in Milwaukee and Chicago and Tommy’s is Superior Elevation in Brooklyn, NY.)
Life and art kept intertwining and progressing. A few years ago, Davey was helping his brother Andy do an installation of a neon sign for his record shop in Chicago. During the car ride there and back, Andy talked his little brother’s ear off about his business, but “then for a second, all of a sudden, he stopped talking about his stuff,” Davey recalls. “He said, you know what? You should start a frame shop. And I was like, whoa, that’s exactly what I need to do right now.”
Davey opened Noble Arts in 2020. Following the ways of his entrepreneurial, idiosyncratic tribe, he’s plying his craft / trade / life along the ever-flowing waters of inspiration. The walls of his studio are filled with works by Milwaukee artists that he’s methodically collected through the years. Among the twenty or so artists represented are pieces by Travis Riley, Al Bardin, Mike Fredrickson, Bob Watt, Nina Bednarski and Eli and Susan Rosenblatt. “My Milwaukee Collection is my pride and joy. It is invaluable to me, regardless of what it might be worth in the rest of the world. You know, it took me six months to buy the Mike Fredrickson painting, just giving him however much I could afford every time I could.”
That Fredrickson piece he’s referring to is a painting of Davey, spinning records in a deejay booth. Gotta love it.