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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.

‘Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation’ opening celebration

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center has been running Arts/Industry, its artists-in-residence program, for four continuous decades. This month the center looks back at the work its residents have created over those 40 years. Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation is a retrospective that exhibits more than 350 works created by artists who spent two to six months producing work in the Kohler Co. factory. The residency, as conceived by Ruth DeYoung Kohler, makes the creative potential of industry available to artists. The resulting works embody a number of parallel themes — including a connection to the history of material culture and the social context of the factory setting. This opening celebration includes refreshments and live music by PurgAtory Hill, as well as gallery talks at 7 and 7:30 p.m. Admission is $9, free for members. Visit jmkac.org for more information.

6 p.m. on Sat., March 22

‘The Better Half’

Lucky Plush Productions, a Chicago-based dance company with an emphasis on contemporary cultural commentary, goes to Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., with The Better Half, a twist on the 1944 noir classic Gaslight. In that film, Ingrid Bergman plays a woman slowly driven insane by her manipulative husband. In The Better Half, Lucky Plush’s performers invoke similar feelings of claustrophobia and need for escape, while requiring its couples to put trust in each other nonetheless. Tickets are $14 on Tuesday night and $29 on Thursday. Go to jmkac.org or call 920-458-6144.

6:30 p.m. on Tues., March 11 and 7:30 p.m. on Thurs., March 13


Looking for some laughs while looking at art?  In addition to the multiple showings of Wisconsin-based visual satirist Warrington Colescott around town (see June 18 Artwatch by Debra Brehmer), there is fun to be had at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan with the new exhibition, “A Sense of Humor. “

This show brings together a roster of artists from across the nation, as well as Chile and Austria. Art of all types abounds, including painting, sculpture, installations, photography, and video. This exhibition takes aim at various subjects with playful visions and biting satire. Daniel Carr of Colorado offers a new view of sometimes-controversial currency with his “Parody State Quarters.”  We here in Wisconsin, now identified with the cow sniffing a round of cheese on our real state quarter, can certainly chuckle at this.

The fun continues at the JMKAC with a range of other exhibitions through the summer.  “Lynda Barry and Roz Chast: Comic Reflections” showcases the mind behind “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” and a visual author of New Yorker cartoons since the late 1970s, respectively. There’s plenty of visitor participation in “Mads Lynnerup: Flip-Flop Ordinary.” Lynnerup, an artist based in New York and Denmark, exhorts viewers to don the summer shoes for playful exploration.

Another new exhibition trends to the contemplative. The Lynden Sculpture Garden is hosting their first temporary exhibition, “Inside/Outside: Linda Wervey Vitamvas & Kevin Giese.”  Vitamvas, who is also a participant in the 2010 Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, offers an installation of over 350 porcelain pieces and botanical-inspired art. Geise shows some of his earlier pieces indoors, such as an installation of 80 ash tree strips called “Still Living” and presents his outdoor installation titled “Immigrant,” which derived from the invasive species of tree, the buckthorn.