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MILWAUKEE — From the 1400s to the 1700s, many thousands of individuals, mostly women, were burned, hanged, or drowned as witches in the United States and Europe. The witch represented an inversion of moral order: she was sexually indiscreet, used powders and unguents to elicit disease, ate children, could fly and transform herself into other creatures. The majority of women who were labeled as witches were single (widowed or never married) and older.
Today we think of this as ludicrous. These primitive superstitions seem remote. And yet, witch hunts persist. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is currently battling to save an art environment built, ostensibly, by a witch.
Over a period of 50 years, the artist Mary Nohl transformed her yard as well as the interior and exterior of her cottage into an environment that stands in conversation with the surrounding land, lake, and her childhood memories. Almost immediately after the first cement sculptures materialized in the 1960s, she became known as “The Witch.” Elaborate myths grew from her industrious acreage. Stories of murder, mayhem, and longing were broadly considered fact by a cross-section of the local populous. Nohl worked alone, from her home. Lacking a husband and prescribed social role, she was a very suspicious character, indeed.
Mary Nohl (1914–2001) graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937. She grew up in Milwaukee, spending frequent weekends at a small cottage along the shores of Lake Michigan. After college, she taught art at several schools but really wanted to focus on her own work. She moved back home and lived in the cottage with her mother and father, while running a commercial pottery studio.
Once her father died and her mother entered a nursing home, Nohl had full run of the house. From the 1960s until her death in 2001 at age 87, Nohl transformed the place into an expansive work of art that was inspired by her childhood roots in this charmed setting. She mixed concrete from sand and stones from the beach to create the many yard sculptures. She cut out wooden reliefs of swimmers and boaters to attach in patterns on the house. Wind chimes hung in the trees, translating the significant breezes into aural compositions. Nohl used what was on hand for her artwork, being both resourceful and inspired by the process of making something from the land. All of her endeavors, be they jewelry making and painting during the winter months or yard work in the summers, emanated from the inspiration of this particular site.
Nohl worked in an interdisciplinary manner (before the term was coined), and yet her diverse output connects thematically. Floating figures, fish, and men with top hats drift from silver jewelry compositions into paintings and yard sculptures. Everything inside and outside the home, from the stippled ceilings to the drip-painted chairs, is joyously embellished with designs that suggest the diverse resources of her education as well as her frequent travels: Hans Arp, Surrealism, the cross-cultural theory laid out by professor Helen Gardner. Kitchen compositions made of chicken bones, woven jute figures, faux stained glass windows, carved wooden totems, abstract collages, assemblages, pen drawings, clay figures, and oil paintings re-envision the traditional concept of ‘home’ as a place of infinite creative potential — a place where personal history has solid authorship.
From the time she built the first concrete sculptures, stories began circulating about the curious person responsible. By the 1960s, most of the property along this private enclave of beach had been subdivided into acre lots, expensive suburban homes replacing the original quaint cottages of Nohl’s generation. In sharp contrast to this newly conceived American dream, wherein a surging economy allowed women to stay home, have children, and be ideal housewives, Nohl lived alone at the end of Beach Drive. Most of her neighbors mowed their giant lawns every Sunday in a shared ritual of conformity, a nod to man’s mastery of nature. In contrast, Nohl wove the sky, lake, beach, wind, and her childhood memories of unfettered play into a self-styled art environment.
Over four decades, Mary Nohl kept making and building. Stories took hold, about how she’d murdered her family and buried them under the sculptures, or how her husband had been lost in the lake and the sculptures were to beckon him home. All the stories inserted the “missing” husband and children. The cottage became a frequent late-night stop for teens drawn to the counterculture strangeness of the place. Others came and left notes of gratitude in her mailbox.
Nohl died in 2001. She left nearly $10 million dollars (her attorney father had invested well) to a foundation to award yearly fellowships to individual artists in Milwaukee and nearby counties. She donated her house and all of its contents to the Kohler Foundation, which preserves art environments. Thirteen years later, however, little has been done to secure the site. The Kohler ran into opposition from Nohl’s wealthy neighbors — they objected to even the most restricted use of the house as a museum or study center. The building fell into disrepair and with each new winter has become increasingly fragile, weathered, marooned in uncertainty. Then, in March of this year, the property’s current owner, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, issued a press release stating that it had given up preservation efforts and will move the house and yard sculptures to Sheboygan County, where it is located. The center will sell the land to fund the move.
In the world, there are very few preserved art environments built by women. Two other significant sites are Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, and Helen Martin’s Owl House in South Africa (which had the benefit of Athol Fugard writing a play about it, The Road to Mecca). Nohl and these two female builders owned their own land, which is not an insignificant detail. Land ownership confers independence and power. Women are still often denied this gentry status. It’s probably the single reason why there aren’t more art environments built by women.
To witness the loss of Mary Nohl’s house and yard is to witness how history is written. Despite decades of feminist thought, queer theory, interest in authenticity and authorship, heightened awareness of exclusionary practice and prejudice, the “domestic” remains a contested, touchy, demeaned place of production. Important ideas cannot emanate and take form from the kitchen or the baby’s room. Art that fully stitches one’s life and daily rhythms to place, home, and domestic labor remains radical, and Mary Nohl’s work rewrites these moral codes of capitalist functionality. When Nohl refused to mow her lawn or buy new clothes (until the old ones wore out), she was thinking independently about the aberrative demands of consumption.
Although not branded a witch, another midwestern artist who works from home, Michelle Grabner (one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial), was recently criticized in the New York Times for being a “soccer mom.” While Nohl’s work took place outside the art world infrastructure and Grabner’s work resides decidedly at its center, they share a commitment to not sever the meaningful parts of their daily existence from their professional artist roles. Grabner’s 2013 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland was insistently titled I Work From Home.
Mary Nohl liked power tools; she repaired her own roof. When teenagers threw rocks at her house she didn’t get bitter, she just tried to solve the problem. When asked why she had never married like so many of her high school and college girl friends, she said she wasn’t opposed to it but that men tended to be wary of women who could fix their own cars.
A woman is a witch when she bends her role, when caring and tending coexist with inventing and building, when she claims and wields power that has not been granted by a curator, a professional figure, or any other infrastructure.
Nohl never believed that art existed in a separate sphere, corralled into museums, labeled with text or swept into the marketplace of privilege. On Beach Drive, she created a place where any passerby might stop, marvel, and feel a little freer, especially if you are a woman. The power of Nohl’s lifelong endeavor emanates from its site and her personal history there. They might as well burn the witch’s house down, because turning it into a facsimile museum in another county would destroy what makes it monumental — power, authority and difference arising from a single woman who was determined to live inquisitively.