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.
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.
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.
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.