Tanner Noble
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The Most Noble Way Possible

BY: Megan Michelson | JANUARY 26, 2024

Amidst a sea of grief, Big Sky’s Kimbie and Kevin Noble have turned to art and photography as a path forward.

Tanner Noble was 18, about to start his freshman year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he planned to study aerospace engineering. He was a bright, outdoorsy kid who ran high school cross country and loved to snowboard, mountain bike, and fly fish. He died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition while riding his mountain bike with friends at Big Sky Resort in the summer of 2017. From that horrific moment onward, the Noble Family, Kevin, Kimbie, and their daughter, Ashley, now 30, had to figure out a way to continue living in a world without Tanner.

When tragedy strikes and grief settles in, it can feel hard to move. Heavy, dark days turn into months, and nothing seems to relieve the sadness. Despite what people say, time often doesn’t alleviate grief of this degree; in fact it can get worse once others have moved on and society has expected you to heal. Many days over the past six years have felt that way for the Noble family of Big Sky.

“When I get sad, I go to the park. Nobody is out there. It’s freezing. I feel more whole, even though nobody is around. That’s where I go to find peace and hope.”

Kevin Noble

In the years since Tanner’s death, Kevin has found himself drawn to the blankest, coldest, most rugged landscape he could find: Yellowstone National Park in winter. “When I get sad, I go to the park,” Kevin, who now works as a professional fine art photographer, said recently from their home in Bozeman. “Nobody is out there. It’s freezing. I feel more whole, even though nobody is around. That’s where I go to find peace and hope.” The irony is not lost on Kevin that such a harsh environment somehow brings him warmth and belonging.

Growing up on the East Coast, Kevin’s parents would load him and his five siblings into a pop-up campervan each summer and head west, where they’d explore Yellowstone and the surrounding wild lands. Later, after his parents split up, Kevin’s dad took him fly fishing in Montana for weeks at a time. As a high school student, Kevin’s favorite class was photography, where he learned to develop film in his school’s darkroom. He had no idea at the time that one day he would combine his love of Yellowstone with his passion for photography in an attempt to heal.

“I’m a minimalist by nature. I aim to reduce noise— whether it’s in life or art. Less is more.”

Kevin Noble

Kevin brings his camera on those winter pilgrimages to Yellowstone to capture images of wolves and grizzlies in stark, snowy fields. “I’m a minimalist by nature. I aim to reduce noise—whether it’s in life or art,” he says. “Less is more. I don’t shoot herds of animals. It’s usually a single animal, and I use negative space as much as possible.

When Kevin and Kimble started their own family— son, Tanner, and daughter, Ashley— they, too, brought their kids to Big Sky from their home in Houston, Texas, for long stretches each summer and winter. They purchased a home on a plot of land in Big Sky over a decade ago as a getaway that quickly felt like home.

During their travels, Kimbie and Kevin would ask Tanner, “Are you more mountains or beach?” Their tenacious son never flinched in his response. “I’m 100 percent mountains, zero percent beach,” Tanner would say. When they’d travel to the beaches of Florida, Tanner, who was constantly in motion, would pace around, saying: “What are we going to do, just go sit on the beach?” Tanner thrived in the mountains, where he could explore trails on his bike, camp with friends, and run 10 miles a day.

For years, Kevin owned and ran a business based in Houston that handled litigation support for law firms. It was a vibrant company that he helped grow to several hundred employees before selling the business in 2017. “The plan was, when I turned 50 I was going to sell the company and we would move to Montana full-time and I’d do fine art photography,” says Kevin. “All that happened just a few months before Tanner died.”

To capture the bison image “40 Below,” Kevin and Kimbie awoke to the that same temperature in YNP. The van wouldn’t start and all the warning lights in Kimbie’s car lit up when they got it going. For the shot, Kevin placed a remote camera behind the car and waited for the bison to come to it.

To capture the bison image “40 Below,” Kevin and Kimbie awoke to the that same temperature in YNP. The van wouldn’t start and all the warning lights in Kimbie’s car lit up when they got it going. For the shot, Kevin placed a remote camera behind the car and waited for the bison to come to it.

Their plans changed drastically. “Everyone grieves differently,” Kevin says. “For me, there was no place I’d rather be than our home in Big Sky. But Kimbie was the opposite.”

For Kimbie, being in the home where Tanner spent his last days was too much. She couldn’t step foot in the house, so she kept her distance from Big Sky. “It was hard because I was in denial. I didn’t want to accept it,” Kimbie says. “Everything in Big Sky reminded me of Tanner and I kept thinking he was going to come through the door.”

Around that time, Kevin was headed into Yellowstone National Park on a winter day and he called Kimbie, who was still at their former home in Texas, and said, “What should I shoot today?” “Show me something I haven’t seen before,” she said.

“The trick is to show someone something they haven’t seen or something they have seen but in a new way.”

Kevin Noble

That’s what Kevin still aims to do. “In Yellowstone, everything has been photographed before,” he says. “The trick is to show someone something they haven’t seen or something they have seen but in a new way.”

Kimbie painted in oil earlier in her career. Now she works in a special acrylic that’s as thick as cake frosting. Photograph by WKP

Kimbie painted in oil earlier in her career. Now she works in a special acrylic that’s as thick as cake frosting. Photograph by WKP

“On sad days, the color would bring me up, lighten my mood, my mental state.”

Kimbie Noble

In 2020, Kevin longed to be in Montana full-time, so the couple came up with a compromise. They’d move to Bozeman, a different world than the one Tanner inhabited, but still close enough to feel the essence of him. “Little did I know, once we got to Bozeman, I would be inspired to paint again,” says Kimble. “On sad days, the color would bring me up, lighten my mood, my mental state.”

Kimbie in the Big Sky gallery. Her frequent road trips with Kevin into Yellowstone, where she drives so he can locate wildlife, inspires her work, too. Photograph by WKP

Kimbie in the Big Sky gallery. Her frequent road trips with Kevin into Yellowstone, where she drives so he can locate wildlife, inspires her work, too. Photograph by WKP

Kimbie’s howling wolf work was inspired by one of Kevin’s images. Photograph by WKP

Kimbie’s howling wolf work was inspired by one of Kevin’s images. Photograph by WKP

“I wanted to try something completely unknown.”

Kimbie Noble

Kimbie grew up on the California coast and studied graphic design, then business and accounting. She put her love of art to the side, to be picked up again much later when she would need a way to manage her grief. Once she moved to Bozeman, she discovered palette knives and thick acrylic paint and started creating dimensional impressionist art inspired by the Montana landscape. She favors thickly painted, brightly colored canvases of bison in the field, Old Faithful erupting, and blooming wildflowers. “I wanted to try something completely unknown,” Kimbie says. “That’s kind of Kevin’s and my motto.”

Once they were both creating art, Kevin had the idea to turn their 2,400-square-foot barn at their Big Sky house into an art gallery, a space that could display the work that both Kimbie, the painter, and Kevin, the photographer, were now pouring much of their energy into.

When Kevin planned an opening gala for their private art showroom in Big Sky in 2021, there was just one problem: Kimbie wasn’t sure she could attend. She still hadn’t stepped foot on their Big Sky property since Tanner had passed four years and 32 days prior. To Kimbie, standing on those hallowed grounds—Tanner’s favorite place in the world—would feel like saying goodbye all over again. But then, on the night of the gallery opening, Kimbie’s thinking shifted. “I wanted to honor Tanner by sharing his love and what he meant to me,” Kimbie says through tears. “If I never came back, people would never know what a great person he was.” When she pulled into the driveway and locked eyes with Kevin that night, they both began to cry.

The Noble’s Big Sky gallery is open for private showings and events.The Noble’s Bozeman gallery, shown here, is also worth a visit.

The Noble’s Big Sky gallery is open for private showings and events.The Noble’s Bozeman gallery, shown here, is also worth a visit.

These days, Kevin spends close to 100 days a year in Yellowstone, most of those in winter. On bitter January days, he’s often the only person camping at Mammoth Campground, the only campsite open year-round within the park. He rises early—4 or 5 a.m.—to photograph a single bison, or bobcat, or elk. The images he shoots are somber and striking, elegant in their black-and-white simplicity. “When I see something beautiful,” says Kevin, “I do think that there’s a higher purpose here. This amount of beauty cannot be by accident.”

“When I see something beautiful. I do think that there’s a higher purpose here. This amount of beauty cannot be by accident.”

Kevin Noble

The couple is in the process of opening a new second-floor gallery space on Main Street in Bozeman that will house a sun- lit studio for Kimbie to paint. “Creating art has brought me so much joy, so much healing,” Kimbie says. “It’s the subject; the freedom of the palette knives. I listen to music and let myself be absorbed in the paint and not think about anything but the present.”

The Noble’s Big Sky gallery is open for private showings and events.The Noble’s Bozeman gallery, shown here, is also worth a visit.

The Noble’s Big Sky gallery is open for private showings and events.The Noble’s Bozeman gallery, shown here, is also worth a visit.

In memory of Tanner, the Noble family founded the Live Noble Foundation, which supports outdoor programming like biking and running races and youth organizations that get kids into the outdoors. They also helped construct a new trail, called Tanner’s Way, which connects Big Sky’s Town Center to the North Fork Trail and has an easement along the edge of the Noble family’s property.

Kimbie and Kevin Noble on the easement they created to Tanner’s Way Trailhead.

Kimbie and Kevin Noble on the easement they created to Tanner’s Way Trailhead.

Before the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new trail, Kevin went to the grain store and asked for a bag of wildflower seeds to plant along the side of the trail. When he got back to the house, he decided one bag wasn’t enough. He bought a second bag. “We asked everyone who showed up at the ribbon cutting to walk the trail and plant flowers on each side in the fresh dirt,” says Kevin. “It’ll take a few years, but soon, you’ll ride Tanner’s Way and see wildflowers on either side.” The trail officially opened in August 2022, five years after Tanner’s death.

Wildflowers on Tanner’s Way trail.

Wildflowers on Tanner’s Way trail.

“All my inspiration comes from this place, from Big Sky and the mountains. I’m so happy I can make art inspired by Tanner’s favorite place.”

Kimbie Noble

Today, when Kimbie and Kevin see natural beauty they are reminded of their son’s electric smile and the way he profusely shared his love and his time. Those memories now drive their art. The pain doesn’t go away, but some of the joy that a lost loved one brought to life can return. “All my inspiration comes from this place, from Big Sky and the mountains,” says Kimbie. “I’m so happy I can make art inspired by Tanner’s favorite place.”

Tanner’s Way trail.

Tanner’s Way trail.

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