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Sheboygan exhibition recreates the world of artist Mary Nohl

Milwaukee residents of a certain age remember it as a right of passage — and for many it may have been the most significant artistic display they would ever see.

The pattern was a familiar one. A knowledgeable friend, driving through Fox Point’s darkened residential streets late at night, would make a hard right on Beach Drive along the Lake Michigan shoreline and suddenly stop the car.

Looming in the high-beams were bizarre figures and otherworldly sculptures that defied definition populating the yard of what the driver described as the Witch’s House. Those who didn’t know any better had no reason to doubt the moniker.

Many of Nohl's work takes the form of strange statues made of reclaimed materials. "Diver" is made of wood as well as bits of polished glass. Photo: JMKAC.
Many of Nohl’s work takes the form of strange statues made of reclaimed materials. “Diver” is made of wood as well as bits of polished glass. Photo: JMKAC.

The site was, of course, the Mary Nohl House, the residence, studio and original gallery of one of Wisconsin’s most prolific and significant artists. Nohl was born in 1914, and, unlike many of her folk art contemporaries, was formally trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When her parents died in the 1960s, Nohl inherited a sizable estate, including the lakefront cottage. She spent the next four decades transforming the former family home into what’s now described as an “art environment,” with more than 7,000 catalogued works inside and outside the house.

When Nohl died at age 87 in 2001, all of her art, as well as the home and environment she created, was bequeathed to the Kohler Foundation, based in Sheboygan, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving art environments. The foundation eventually passed the art and estate along to the (unaffiliated) John Michael Kohler Arts Center, where it is now one of two Wisconsin art environments they oversee.

JMKAC recently opened Of Heart and Home: Mary Nohl’s Art Environment, an exhibition that allows visitors a look at some of the works from within the famous lakeside home, which remains closed to the public.

The exhibition, which closes Aug. 21, showcases 20 different works of art, along with a “workshop wall” featuring more than 100 tools Nohl used to create her art. According to exhibit curator Karen Patterson, Of Heart and Home is the first of several upcoming exhibits dedicated to the late artist. Patterson recently shared with the Wisconsin Gazette her thoughts behind the exhibit.

How would you characterize Mary Nohl’s art? 

Mary Nohl was always in conversation with Lake Michigan. There are maritime motifs running through most of her work and she often used organic materials such as driftwood, pebbles and sand in her sculptures. I would say, however, that Mary Nohl refused to be confined by artistic characterization. She was a woodcarver, painter, sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, potter, writer, illustrator and jeweler. Nohl was also an environment builder, altering her home and yard such that her creations permeated every room and between every tree.

How would you define an art environment?

This unique field of art making involves an individual significantly transforming their personal surroundings, such as their home or yard, into an exceptional, multifaceted work of art. The result of that creative impulse is known as an art environment. It embodies the maker’s life experience and expresses the locale in which they lived and worked.

Often these environments are created without formal plans and are made of readily available local supplies, such as concrete, wood, or found items. As such, every art environment is different in intent, meaning, scale, or material. Ultimately, preservation is about keeping the (artist’s) story alive.

How does the JMKAC exhibit enable visitors to experience the Mary Nohl house art environment?

In the case of this exhibition, I empathized with the viewer, who can’t get into the home. I thought it would be very important for people to see something of the home itself. Since we had to rebuild her workshop, I felt that including the south-facing wall of her workshop in the gallery would reinforce her interdisciplinary work. By the sheer number of tools that were on that wall, you can see that Mary Nohl worked feverishly in a variety of different media. So that became the focus of the exhibition.

The exhibition also begins a conversation about what it takes for an institution to preserve and present an art environment. It also shows some of the preservation decisions that need to be made and shows works in various states of restoration. Lastly, it demonstrates Mary Nohl as a multidisciplinary artist, and I used the workshop wall as inspiration in selecting works that respond to the tools on the wall.

The JMKAC exhibit features a recreation of one of Mary Nohl's tool walls, an unorthodox way to show the many mediums she utilized. Photo: JMKAC.
The JMKAC exhibit features a recreation of one of Mary Nohl’s workshop walls, packed with tools, an unorthodox way to show the many mediums she utilized. Photo: JMKAC.

How did you choose the artwork you put on display? Does it adequately reflect the overall art environment?

There are many ways to talk about Mary Nohl and the environment. I know that one thing people may be disappointed to know is that the Danny Diver graphic novel is not on display. I was thinking about more of a workshop setting and I didn’t think Danny Diver was fitting in a workshop scene, not that I presume to know where Mary did all of her work.

For Danny Diver fans, JMKAC will present more of the Mary Nohl environment during its 50th anniversary (in 2017), and I simply had to hold some things back for that exhibition.

At one point there was talk of dismantling the cottage and moving the whole environment to JMKAC. What changed those plans?

It is always best to keep an art environment where it was built. Keeping it in situ is pivotal to its reception. We do have relocated art environments in our collection and we also have select components of existing art environments in our collection — whatever we can do to keep the story alive is what we want to do. Ultimately, after many discussions and research, the decision for the Mary Nohl art environment was to keep it where it is.

Is it difficult to curate an environment outside of the gallery proper?

The vast majority of my job is to curate environments that I do not have access to, and I find that inspiring. It requires me to balance a variety of research methods with creative problem-solving. I do not want to create a Disney World experience. I want the public to understand that this is an art environment and it is a unique style of art making worthy of examination.

Nohl's work also includes small figures built of sticks, which were used as ornamentation inside and outside her home, and, especially in her later years, mesmerizing paintings depicting similar figures. Photo: JMKAC.
Nohl’s work also includes small figures built of sticks, which were used as ornamentation inside and outside her home, and, especially in her later years, mesmerizing paintings depicting similar figures. Photo: JMKAC.

Of Heart and Home: Mary Nohl’s Art Environment will be on display through Aug. 21 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan. For more information, call 920-458-6144 or visit jmkac.org.

Zymbiotics revives the art of fermented food

Everything old is new again, and one of the latest waves in healthy eating dates back to a time when people depended on fermentation to preserve their food.

Chances are few of them knew at the time that cabbage, carrots and other fermented vegetables actually increase in nutritional value during storage. Fox Point entrepreneur Jeff Ziebelman and his girlfriend Betty Holloway are reviving interest in food fermentation with their company Zymbiotics, which uses age-old fermentation processes to increase the nutritional value of foods like sauerkraut, Korean-style kimchee and pickled carrots. 

“The idea is that we are in a symbiotic process with the microbes in the human gut and these little partners are doing so much good for us,” says Holloway, a registered dietician. “Microbes help digest food and maximize its value, and we want to keep them healthy and only allow the good bacteria to survive.”

Ziebelman, whose previous job was importing pianos from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, has been working with Holloway on Zymbiotics for about eight months. He credits his dietician/nutritionist partner for coming up with the idea behind the firm.

“I always liked food and cooking and have a pretty healthy lifestyle, with daily exercise, yoga and meditation,” Ziebelman says. “Betty was the one who suggested fermented foods. It’s one of the hottest things in health and wellness right now.”

But there is more to fermentation’s value than just its preservative capabilities. Scientifically speaking, the fermentation process ruptures the plants’ cellular walls, allowing for a release of nutrients that are then more easily assimilated in your body, Ziebelman says. The plants’ natural bacteria add to those already in the human gut, increasing the body’s capability to process nutrients and maximize their value.

“By fermenting the vegetables you’re almost pre-digesting them,” Ziebelman says. “This helps your immune system by making sure that the walls of your intestine are covered with healthy bacteria that helps keep more deleterious bacteria from entering your system.”

Holloway credits the fermentation section of Cooked, food journalist Michael Pollan’s treatise on food preparation styles, for stimulating her interest in fermented foods.

“It got me to thinking that this is the type of process we have to pursue,” Holloway says. “This is something we need to promote and a vestige that we need to revive.”

Zymbiotics began distributing its products last summer at farmer’s markets in southeastern Wisconsin, and the three-product line is now available in 35 retail outlets in the greater Milwaukee area, including Outpost Natural Foods. Plans to move into the Madison market are in the works.

In addition to Jeff’s Zauerkraut, Zymbiotics also produces Jeff’s Zimchi and Jeff’s Ginger Zarrots. The duo uses the commercial kitchen and staff at Klasiana Pizza in Cudahy to produce and package its products.

Jeff’s Zauerkraut combines both red and green cabbage, which Holloway says is a more nutritional blend, with carrots, onions, sea salt, garlic and caraway seeds. Jeff’s Zimchi, a spin on Korean kimchee, uses Daikon radish, ginger and Korean peppers, plus a dash of fish sauce and one cup of sugar for every 26-gallon batch, Ziebelman says. The Ginger Zarrots, the simplest of all, are comprised of carrots, ginger and sea salt.

“Jeff’s Zimchee is produced from a traditional Korean recipe, but we made some modifications for the American palate spice-wise,” Ziebelman says. ”We wanted something with that burst of flavor without the burn. A number of Korean nationals have touted the quality of it, so we feel good about that.”

Most plants have some level of natural sugar, which makes them good candidates for fermentation, Holloway says. Natural fermentation processes preserve nutrients and add the vinegar-like quality familiar to those who eat pickled foods. However, there is no vinegar used in any of Zymbiotic’s foods, which is why the products are kept chilled. The living organisms remain at work long after the products have been packaged.

Zymbiotics’ products differ from pickled foods bought off store shelves. Unless products are refrigerated, there’s a good chance they’ve been pasteurized, which kills the nutrients, Holloway says.

“The most important thing is that the overall health benefits of these foods are so vast,” she says. “It’s not just good for one thing or another, but it creates the nutrients you need. It helps people feel better by creating some of the neurotransmitters so relevant to our health and well-being, and it tastes good, too.” 

Fermented foods also help with weight loss by providing the feeling of being full without all the calories associated with an actual full stomach, Holloway says.

For more information go to www.zymbioticsllc.com.