Much has been written about the popularity of the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing system. For Michelle B. Noah, a Dallas-based artist, the Enneagram has been more than a tool for self-understanding: It has served as a muse for her artwork.
Noah first learned about the Enneagram from her two adult daughters. “They talk about it all the time, so I thought I needed to figure it out,” she said.
The Enneagram describes nine personality types based not on a person’s outward actions but on inner motivations. Each of these types is assigned a number, and each is influenced to some extent by the numbers on either side, called “wings.” In addition, the nine types often are divided into three “triads,” each of which share certain characteristics.
Noah said her daughters quickly identified her as a Seven — optimistic, playful and outgoing. “So that’s when I went to Amazon and ordered a bunch of books,” she said.
“The Seven is very energetic and optimistic,” Noah said. “Some people call them the Adventurer, some call them the Enthusiast. I’m pretty event driven. I like having places to go, taking vacations, planning workshops and events.”
Enneagram as muse
The more Noah learned about the Enneagram, the more it resonated with her.
“I love how it gives you more of a descriptor of a person,” she said. “There are billions of people in the world — all Eights aren’t the same and all Nines aren’t the same.”
Ultimately, Noah turned her Enneagram learnings into the inspiration for a set of 30 paintings — one for each of the nine Enneagram types, the three triads and the 18 wings.
“A Seven just likes the anticipation of doing something, and that’s why with the Enneagram show, it was something to work toward. It energized me,” she explained.
Creating a set of 30 related paintings required a great deal of planning.
“The way it started is I put a notebook together and I picked the palette for each number first before I picked the composition,” Noah said. “I thought of each person as I painted each piece.” For example, she thought of her husband, an Enneagram One, as she painted that piece.
The One, which is known as The Perfectionist, “is a more planned-out composition than some of the others,” Noah said, noting that she divided the canvas into nine perfect squares. “I wanted it to be that way.
‘A lot of depth’
Noah, who painted folk art earlier in her career, now prefers abstract painting. Like the artists who’ve inspired her — Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Wassily Kandinsky — Noah’s paintings are full of bold colors.
Asked to pick her favorite of the Enneagram series, Noah said she likes the painting depicting the Four – an Enneagram type known for being very emotional and individualistic.
“The painting of the Four has a lot of depth,” she said. “It has intensity to it. But it’s some light, some dark. It can be moody. Some of the spaces reflect the mood of the Four.”
And of course, she also likes the one that depicts her Enneagram type – the Seven.
“I used all my favorite colors,” she said. “I really wanted the Seven to look energetic and optimistic. It has bright pink and lime green, and it has a lot of energy to it.”
‘A thread and a journey’
Although each of her Enneagram paintings can be viewed on its own, Noah thinks they’re more impactful as a set of 30.
“It’s a thread and a journey, so you have to see it in one sitting,” she said. A recent exhibition in Dallas allowed people to do just that.
Depicting the progression of the Enneagram proved challenging at times.
“The wings were harder to do because I had already established a palette and composition, and so it had to flow from one core to the next core,” she explained. “Each core can stand on its own, but the wings have to flow — they have to tell the story of the journey. It’s been a two-year project of learning about the Enneagram and painting.”
A tool for self-understanding
Besides being a creative outlet, the Enneagram has helped Noah understand herself better.
“The deadly sin for the Seven is gluttony — not about food, but about experiences and always being on the go and always having some big thing you’re doing,” she said, noting that she and fellow Sevens are prone to excess. “When I’m in the middle of a big project, my studio is a total mess; I leave a wake of destruction behind me, but the final product is exactly how I want to be.”
The Enneagram also has helped her in her closest relationships, she said. “It’s helped me communicate better with my husband and my children and have better insight into what was going on with each of them.”
Take Noah’s husband, the Enneagram One.
“My husband is an ER doctor,” Noah said. “He’s a One and he has to imagine the worst-case scenario. And understanding that has been helpful in our relationship. I think I lift him up — I encourage him and help him see things in an optimistic way, and he’s a planner, so that helps me.
“If you understand someone else’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s easier to navigate a relationship,” Noah said. “The Enneagram helps you understand why people do what they do, that some of it comes naturally.”
It’s also helped Noah in her faith journey.
“I think you can use your biblical godly worldview to view the Enneagram and you can think of it in terms of your relationship with Christ,” she said. “God is your Creator, and he made people to be different and have different strengths and weaknesses. You can stay in your biblical worldview and use the Enneagram to enhance your walk with Christ.”
A gradual evolution
Noah, who earned a degree in fine arts, specializing in printmaking, started her career as an art teacher. Five years ago, she opened her own art studio.
“It’s my passion and I love it,” she said. “I love thinking about it and I feel like I have a lot of freedom now that my kids are grown and my husband has his own career. I can take my art wherever I want to take it.”
And the Enneagram is a part of that, she said.
“One goal is to recreate my gallery and studio where I can hang the Enneagram pieces and do some kind of an event where people can come and paint and we can talk about the Enneagram,” Noah said.
See Noah’s work on her website.
Helen Jerman is a freelance writer based in Dallas.