FOX POINT, Wisconsin — Mary Nohl knew what some of the neighbors thought of her house. It was unlike any home in the Milwaukee suburb, with colossal concrete heads looming between the slender trees, driftwood sculptures adorning the colorful siding, and wooden cut-outs of boats and fish decorating the garage. For 50 years, Nohl constantly tinkered with the art, adding lattices of concrete faces and glass that caught the light, wind chimes in the trees, and whimsical mosaic creatures. She called herself simply “a woman who likes tools.” However, to many suspicious of this single woman toiling away at her eclectic cottage on the Lake Michigan shore, she was the “Witch of Fox Point.” So, on her front steps, she embedded in pebbles the greeting: “BOO.”
“She lived the myth making,” artist Alex Gartelmann, who is now living in and restoring Nohl’s house, said as we stepped inside. “And she was above it all.” While the interior of the house in Fox Point, Wisconsin, is now mostly empty as Mary Nohl’s Art Environment has been undergoing a restoration project since 2015, there are traces of the dense art that filled it from floor to ceiling. Stained glass covers the windows (“Almost all doors and windows once had stained glass,” Gartlemann explained), skeletons made from chicken bones hover on the kitchen cabinets, and along the fireplace in the living room, a snake chases an apple.
On the floor of the living room, wooden fish in various sizes and conditions were arranged from large to small. Gartlemann is examining which can be restored and returned to the house, and which will need to be recreated. Nohl nailed the originals on the walls; the reinstallation will use a hanging system so pieces can be removed without damage. The process is part of an ongoing effort to return the home to what it looked like around 1998, when Nohl was still active and the art was at its peak. The exterior was recently repainted, drainage in the lawn improved, and windows have been replaced. Light now streams into the living room through a new picture window, with the deep blue of Lake Michigan visible through the overgrown trees. Once, the room had a direct view to the water. Years of trespassing and vandalism led Nohl to put up a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and the plants were allowed to grow.
Nohl’s living room is currently on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which manages the art environment and is overseeing its restoration (Gartlemann is the JMKAC exhibitions project coordinator). The site was left by Nohl to the Kohler Foundation, and in 2012 was gifted to JMKAC. On one wall in the JMKAC exhibition, across from the buoyant assemblage of midcentury furniture, mobiles made from painted eggs, and a hanging horse rider formed from wire, is a panorama of Lake Michigan.
Called “Frozen Blue” (2017), the collage photograph is by Cecelia Condit, one of many artists who have received grants through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Nohl Fund. When Mary Nohl passed away in December of 2001 at the age of 87, she left $11.3 million dollars — her whole estate — for the support of local arts. Condit’s photograph returns that sprawling lake view to her living room, and it also reflects how Nohl was far from an “outsider” artist, and that she cared deeply about the place where she was born and died. From the concrete sculptures made from beach sand, to the nautical themes of the wood cut-outs, the subjects were as site-specific as the work itself.
The living room is the centerpiece of Greetings and Salutations and Boo: Mary Nohl + Catherine Morris, an exhibition that’s part of the JMKAC’s 2017 The Road Less Traveled celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary. Each of the 15 rotating shows focuses on a different art environment, with a contemporary creator, scholar, or thinker engaging with the work in a new way. JMKAC curator Karen Patterson approached Catherine Morris, curator for the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, to organize selections of Nohl’s art. Nohl studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was multidisciplinary in her practice, working on a small-scale with silver and stone jewelry, up to a towering “Stickman” sculpture. She had a modernist experimentation in her use of industrial materials like metal and cement, and she delved into ceramics, paintings, and lithographs. She even wrote a graphic novel called “Danny the Diver,” inspired by her brother Max who was a salvage diver.
“In the history of art in the 20th century, what little success or critical attention women artists received was often inexplicably constructed around personal narratives,” Morris states in an exhibition text. “Biography seemed to be the primary means critics, curators, or dealers had for talking about the work of women artists; these same reductive methodological tools just didn’t get applied to male artists of the same period.” Morris notes how, for example, Frida Kahlo’s medical trauma is frequently highlighted in discussing her work; Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism is not. “These undermining narratives sometimes calcify into fables and myths of witchcraft,” Morris adds. “And, as the history of ‘witchiness’ teaches us, rather than confirming any actual threat of danger, the designation is an invitation to persecution and ostracism.”
As Patterson told me as we walked through the exhibition, “Mary needed a new interpretation, and certainly someone from a feminist lens.” She noted the feminist argument that “the personal is political,” and that although Nohl mainly worked from home (aside from a brief stint managing a commercial pottery studio), this does not mean her art was not a statement of independence and vision. Nohl was serious about her work, whether it was making an Easter Island-esque head topped with a mosaic crown, or a richly colored painting of abstracted forms. Her concrete creations of fish sitting on benches and people with sun-shaped heads turned to the sky appear joyously spontaneous. Descend into the basement of the house, and it’s evident how much her art developed before she started to work outside. Two murals survive — her earliest work in the house — and they are strikingly different from the art environment. Two people dance naked alongside one entryway, their bodies defined unlike the amorphous figures of the later cut-outs; flanking an adjacent portal are an eerie cloaked skeleton and a woman-like being with razor-sharp teeth.
In 2014, as Debra Brehmer reported for Hyperallergic, there was a plan to relocate Nohl’s home to Sheboygan County, where JMKAC is based. By 2015, that idea was reversed due to the logistical challenges and risk to the art. Instead, the aim is to restore and preserve the environment in situ, including stabilizing the outdoor sculptures, and getting local zoning changes for an artist residency. However, concerns about traffic on the quiet street and disruptive crowds have made the Fox Point community bristle in the past at any regular public access. So JMKAC has made efforts to invite visitors into Nohl’s world through their exhibitions. In 2016, Of Heart and Home: Mary Nohl’s Art Environment featured a wall of her studio with over 100 tools. JMKAC’s Art Preserve, planned to open in 2020 in Sheboygan, will include her work in a permanent collections facility that will double as a place to study art environments and their preservation. The current Greetings and Salutations and Boo includes a diverse cross-section of her art, with paintings, sculptures, and the white fence of faces in profile that bordered her property. That is, before the chain-link fence.
In one case at JMKAC is a stack of diaries from five years of Nohl’s life, in which she meticulously recorded her diet, exercise, and art making. One entry reads: “Removed a pane of glass on the north side of the house, and made a round rifle hole in a wood panel, and I use blanks and it sounds just as loud as the war in Vietnam on TV.” Nohl may have laughed off being the “witch” of the community, but there was a real fear for her safety in this nonconformity. Slowly JMKAC is finding a balance between saving her creations and harmonizing with the affluent Milwaukee suburb, where Nohl’s house stands out on Fox Point’s Beach Drive as much as ever among the neat lawns and big homes.
“People will hopefully both be supportive and question the ideas of what they though it was,” Patterson said. Gartlemann added that it’s “a slow process of winning hearts and minds.” He said that anytime he’s outside painting or working on conservation, there are always curious passersby. Overwhelmingly, it’s not people asking about the witch legends, like if the statues are trespassers turned to stone. They’re wondering when they can come inside.
Greetings and Salutations and Boo: Mary Nohl + Catherine Morris continues at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin) through August 20.
The author’s travel and accommodation expenses were paid for by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.