By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 28, 2009 at 5:24 AM

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.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.