For Joseph Skow, visiting "The Witch's House" in Fox Point is a rite of a passage, a return to childhood and a magical experience. In fact, he is so taken with the home, originally owned by artist Mary Nohl, that he decided to create a documentary.
The film, called "Pilgrimage To The Witch's House," is currently in production and will screen in May 2012 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Fox Bay Cinema (exact dates and times have yet to be determined). It explores the mysterious and ornate house on the bank of Lake Michigan that draws up to two dozen informal visits a day.
The house, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire, is not open for tours, but carloads of people regularly visit daily during the summer months just to catch a peek at what is dubbed "The Witch's House." The home, trimmed with wooden reliefs of fish and other figures, features a yard packed with concrete people, animals and dinosaurs.
The film is about Nohl's legacy, the people living around it and what's to become of it in the future. Skow suggests a biography by Barbara Manger, "Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside," for anyone interested in learning more about Nohl's life.
"My film is mostly compiled with testimonies of locals; sharing their memories of Mary and her enchanted property," he says.
Skow's film is shot entirely from behind the fence. He hopes to eventually gain access to the yard and home, but at this point, he is filming from the street.
"While I would love the opportunity to film on the grounds, and hope to make it happen, this is a project that explores the view from outside the fence," says Skow. "This is a documentary on 'our' perspective; the way in which the general public views Mary's property."
The house is located in an otherwise quiet, affluent Fox Point neighborhood, and it is rumored that neighbors of the Mary Nohl house get frustrated by the number of people who drive by. Skow believes, however, the tension has tamed in recent years.
"From what I've been told, it would seem the frustration has transformed into a sort of tolerance. I've spoken to many members of the neighborhood that cherish Mary's art environment, and understand the spectacle of such a magical place, but that isn't to say everyone's happy," he says.
Skow spend three or four days a week in front of the property and says he sometimes sees dozens of cars drive by during his shoot. He reminds it's important that visitors are respectful during their visits and nearby residents would prefer that they do not use their driveways as turnarounds.
Skow interviewed many people about their experiences visiting the Witch's House, and he is still looking for more. He will host an event on Saturday, Sept. 17 from 5 to 10 p.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott, 5200 W. Brown Deer Rd., for people who want to share their Witch's House stories and potentially be included in the documentary. The event will include free food.
In 2005 the Wisconsin Preservation Trust listed the house, which is a historic landmark, as one of the 10 most endangered properties in Wisconsin. This fact also inspired Skow to create the documentary.
"Mary Nohl's environment remains one of the few tangible examples of childhood innocence, whimsical fantasy, and, quite literally, concrete proof of magic. It is truly a surreal experience visiting her property, a cultural oasis in the often dull riches of the North Shore suburbs," he says.
According to Skow, Nohl was difficult to categorize as an artist because although she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, her style is associated with the Outsider Artist movement because of its folk art-like appearance.
Skow, an artist, professional social media expert and independent filmmaker who is six credits away from a film degree at UWM, started creating the documentary in December 2010. In relation to the film, he describes himself as a "one man band" who did all of the research, writing, filming, editing and promotion by himself. However, Skow says UWM film professor Dick Blau and local filmmaker Tate Bunker helped tremendously.
"It's safe to say that without Dick Blau's guidance I would still be searching for my artistic voice, and personalized approach to filmmaking, which allows me to innovate, not imitate," says Skow. "Tate Bunker has also helped with my understanding of film as an artistic medium."
Most importantly, Skow hopes the documentary will make people think about art, Nohl and more.
"As it is with all variations of art, my goal is to move the consumer, and to create an experience, which will promote an expansion of though 'outside of the box.' I want to make you think. If you're thinking, I've done my job; if not, you'll never get it," says Skow.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.