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In Arts & Entertainment

Mary Nohl, seen here in a 1994 photo, was often misunderstood by people who didn't know her. (PHOTO: Ron Byers)

In Arts & Entertainment

A detail of the cover of "Mary Nohl Inside & Outside." (PHOTO: Ron Byers)

New book is a fitting tribute to "witch" Mary Nohl and her art


Ask someone about Mary Nohl and you'll likely be met with a blank stare. As someone in Milwaukee about the Witch's House on the North Shore and nearly everyone will have at least heard of it and many will say they've driven up to check it out. Rock and roll fans may know her work only from the cover of the Violent Femmes' second LP, "Hallowed Ground."

But Nohl -- who died in 2001 -- was no witch. In fact, she was a talented and always active artist, whose lifetime of creations is part of the patrimony of Sheboygan's John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), which shows a large collection of Nohl's work. That oeuvre was bequeathed to the Kohler Foundation, which also preserves Nohl's Fox Point home, adorned -- inside and out -- with her unique creations. The home is not open to the public.

Now, artist Barbara Manger -- who knew Nohl -- and book designer Janine Smith have collaborated to create "Mary Nohl Inside & Outside: Biography of the Artist," a large-format paperback book that is the first comprehensive biography of Nohl and appreciation of her oeuvre.

Loaded, naturally, with illustrations, the volume is especially notable for introducing us to the woman behind the quirky, playful and seemingly endless art. The book is distributed by University of Wisconsin Press.


"I hope readers will come to appreciate Mary Nohl's fierce creativity and her intense dedication to creating in so many forms throughout her life," says Manger, who is also the founder of Artists Working in Education. "I also hope they appreciate the concern and caring for her community that she developed later in life."

Born to a Milwaukee lawyer and his wife in 1914, Nohl grew up in a relatively well-to-do - if frugal -- family and as such had the chance to study art and to satisfy her interest in painting, sculpture and other forms via travels to Europe and other destinations.

At 13, Nohl built a model airplane that won a competition and earned her some local press. Later, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to become an art educator.

In 1946 she built her own pottery studio on Green Bay Road. The death of her brother in 1960 began Nohl's most active period. Her father died the following year and two years later her mother was admitted to a nursing home. From then on, Nohl lived alone and she made the Fox Point home her own, festooning its interior with artwork and filling the yard with her sculptures.

Nohl's amazing body of work can be viewed at the JMKAC, to which she bestowed her home and works upon her death. She also left her estate -- valued at more than $11 million -- to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which helped underwrite the publication of the new book.

While Nohl's work is joyous to behold thanks to its fresh, fun-loving spirit and its glorious and refreshing variedness, Nohl's independence and open mind also ought to provide inspiration, says Manger.

"Mary cared nothing about conforming, resisted the stereotypical roles for women of her generation," she says. "She set her own direction and pursued creating regardless of the views of others. Her dedication to her art, her ability to focus, as well as her work ethic, are models for everyone. These were not, however, without sacrifice."

One of those sacrifices was that Nohl was often misunderstood by people who didn't know her. She bristled when deemed "eccentric" or "quirky." But, says Manger, she took the "witch" label in stride.

"Mary regarded the witch label with good humor. Her mysterious work and the atmosphere she created in her yard led young people in the area to both fear her and be attracted to her property. It was the young people who started calling her this -- and it stuck."

Witch or not, eccentric and quirky or not, Nohl was perhaps the most interesting artist working in and around Milwaukee in the second half of the 20th century. "Mary Nohl Inside &Outside" -- the proceeds from which benefit the Mary Nohl Collection at JMKAC -- is not only an interesting look at Nohl's legacy, but a fitting tribute to the artist herself.


Talkbacks

SMDAHMS | July 21, 2011 at 12:53 p.m. (report)

I use to drive by here all the time as a teenager. Even took our driver's ed training down here :-) Fond memories and I too wish her house would be opened up as a public museum to her.

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Jrskow | March 31, 2011 at 3:49 a.m. (report)

A feature film on the Fox Point Witch's House is currently in production. Check out the Facebook page for more information... http://www.facebook.com/PilgrimageToTheWitchsHouse

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sconnie8 | April 29, 2009 at 11:12 a.m. (report)

It's too bad her home isn't a public art museum itself. It would be so great to get a first hand look at her fantastic art and sculpture.

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Gomez | April 28, 2009 at 8:01 a.m. (report)

I once threw a stolen bowling ball in her yard. Yeah, I was 16 and that was almost 20 years ago. Joy.

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