Tag Archives: outsider art

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.

Getting into outsider art at Dean Jensen Gallery

In the window of Dean Jensen Gallery is a small wooden sculpture that attracts a lot of surprised attention from passersby. A woman is giving birth — not in a metaphorical sense, and there are no curtains involved. A small head appears between her legs, and the attendant nurse and presumable physician, as well as the new mother, are uniformly stoic, as though they are listening to an academic lecture rather than experiencing the trauma and new spark of life.

This work is an example of what is alternately known as “self-taught,” “visionary,” “folk” or “outsider” art, loosely defined as work by artists who train and travel outside of the mainstream structures of art school and the established gallery system. They make art without regard for conventional trends, accepted styles and notions of contemporary art theory. The result usually reflects an authentic sincerity, and its subjects are often blunt depictions of daily living that might pass privately unnoticed.

Who exactly qualifies as an outsider artist? That’s an ongoing debate in the art world. But Dean Jensen’s latest survey of outsider and folk art, Naives, Seers, Lone Wolves and World Savers XXIV, doesn’t seek to parse these loaded descriptors, instead simply giving audiences a sense of these works.

Jensen started collecting this type of work when he was a journalist. He studied Renaissance art, but not having, as he puts it, “the pocketbook” for works by Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, folk and outsider art appealed to him.

Today, self-taught art has made its way into galleries in its own right, represented in the places where contemporary artists well versed in the threads of aesthetic and personal issues tread. The thing is that these artists and works originate from places far afield from the mainstream art world — indeed, in some cases, from an actual field. The intentions of the artists tend to be very personal, which is the prime informer for work that reflects everyday life and experiences.

This is perhaps one of the underlying impetuses beneath the religious imagery of artists such as Reverend Howard Finster and paintings such as “Angel of the Rocks.” Finster’s work is often of conditions advising attentiveness to salvation and second comings. Jensen recounts meeting Finster, hanging out in his studio as he worked through the night. With a chuckle, Jensen speculates that sleep deprivation as well as devotion may influence these visions.

Other works in the exhibition are more akin to representations of everyday life, such as the “Crown of Thorns Church,” built out of tiny, delicate bits of wood and assembled so that pews and preacher are all visible inside its intricate, latticework skin.

The proliferation of genre scenes is not so complete, however, as many self-taught artists intuitively veer towards abstraction. Mose Tolliver is a southern American artist who depicts figures in forms that bend and angle, sometimes taking faces that resemble African masks. A note of autobiography may be detected in paintings like “Dry Bones Charley,” where a figure supported by crutches stands head-on to the viewer, feet turned in and fingers extended. Tolliver’s legs and feet were crushed in a factory accident when a slab of heavy marble fell on him, and these representations, in simplified form with their stylized and restrained figures, regard the viewer with strength despite limitations.

Other artists, like Mary T. Smith, gravitate toward more gestural paintings, as though unknowingly embracing the modes of neo-expressionism practiced in the 1980s. “Untitled (Two Figures)”, painted on corrugated steel, features a fierce man with bared teeth and a woman demurely standing in the background. The two are bold and unconstrained, with confident strokes of white that enliven the dark ambiguities suggested by their expression and appearance.

What this exhibition provides is a glimpse into recent forays outside of the art world. The study of art made outside of the mainstream environments of art academies and sanctioned exhibition spaces has taken place since the early 20th century.

In this abbreviated survey, it becomes clear that these works are indeed somehow different from their mainstream contemporaries. Yet, their visual power is a knock at the door of the conventional art world that has been thankfully answered.

On exhibit

Naives, Seers, Lone Wolves and World Savers XXIV: A Survey of Important Outsider and Folk Art continues through Dec. 4 at Dean Jensen Gallery, 759 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Visit deanjensengallery.com for more details.


I made this for you: Small gestures in clay

Portrait Society Gallery

207 E. Buffalo St., fifth floor

Opening reception Friday, Nov. 20, 6-9 p.m.

Dishes are intimate things that are used everyday. In this exhibition, Portrait Society shows its first exhibition dedicated to ceramics, with pieces that are created to be functional as well as commemorative objects. Artists include Adolph Rosenblatt, Colin Matthes, Harvey Opgenorth, Rudy Rotter, Gary John Gresl, and many more.

Exhibition of Paintings and Bronze Casts by Michelle Grabner of Wisconsin

Green Gallery

1500 N. Farwell Ave.

Exhibition runs through Jan. 2, 2016

Michelle Grabner is perhaps best known for paintings and silverpoint works of abstract patterns, but Green Gallery is pulling her work in three dimensions into plain sight. In the traditional medium of bronze, her sculptures will be shown, as well as two-dimensional works in this upcoming exhibition. 

Folk artist captured 19th-century Wisconsin rural life

The color palette is bright or muted, depending on the type of paper used. The perspective isn’t always accurate. The bird’s-eye landscape views are better imagined than observed.

But the watercolors of German-born Wisconsin artist Paul Seifert chronicle a place and time long past in the state’s history, including Wisconsin’s “lost city” in Richland County. Seifert’s folk art is cherished for its historical value.

“Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Farmscapes of Paul Seifert,” on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Madison’s Capitol Square through Aug. 30, chronicles a time when few artists and fewer photographers roamed rural Wisconsin. Seifert’s approach, simple yet thorough, provides a comprehensive view of farm life in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region at the end of the 19th century. The style is reminiscent of that of Grandma Moses.

“Call it folk art, outsider art, naïve art — all those terms have their limitations,” says Joe Kapler, the museum’s curator of cultural history and curator of the Seifert exhibit. “These are real places where real people lived and still live, not abstract bowls of fruit.”

The exhibit gathers 17 watercolors together for the first time. They’re all that remains of Seifert’s estimated output of some 40 paintings. The Wisconsin Historical Society, which is affiliated with the museum, owns six of them. The rest are on loan from private collectors, including descendants of the families for whom Seifert originally painted the farmscapes.

The exhibit also includes historical artifacts from the region during Seifert’s time. There’s also a Seifert-rendered map of Richland City.

That Richland County community, originally located just south of the town of Gotham on the banks of the Wisconsin River, was built on a foundation of sand. Over a period of about 40 years, the river eroded the underlying land. By the 1920s, there was virtually nothing left of Wisconsin’s “lost city.”

That’s not the case with many of the farms painted by Seifert, a native of Germany’s Saxony region and the son of art instructors who emigrated to the United States in 1867 and settled in Richland City. He married Elizabeth Kraft, the daughter of German immigrants. He became a gentlemen farmer and a trained taxidermist. 

Seifert painted commercially, producing images on glass for sale. It wasn’t until 1879 that he painted his first farmscape — Residence of Lemuel Cooper. That painting is currently on loan to the exhibit from New York’s American Folk Art Museum. The subject is a Plain, Wisconsin, farm. Dominated by earth tones that age has muted, the painting is considered Seifert’s “alpha work,” because it clearly bears the artist’s signature.

The watercolor’s orderly arrangement of detail is characteristic of Seifert’s farmscapes. It’s his bird’s-eye view of the landscape, a characteristic Kapler says the artist could never seen from ground level.

“The perspectives of these paintings are not ones that could be seen with the eye, because there was nothing in the area tall enough to stand on to get such views,” Kapler says. “This is really Seifert’s envisioning of the farm, but there is nothing in writing that explains the artist’s process.”

Paintings that followed Residence of Lemuel Cooper embraced a brighter color palette but contained many of the same details. Those details became more abundant during his farmscape period. That period ended in 1915, and he died six years later. 

Hay harvesting was a popular element in Seifert’s works, as were symmetrically arranged gardens and orchards. People and livestock of all sizes populated he landscape and unique details — from croquet games to hops harvesting — further enhanced the paintings’ historical accuracy.

Many of the works have been restored. But even those that haven’t represent a quality and durability unexpected from watercolors painted on paper more than 100 years ago, Kapler says.

“The reds are still quite vivid, and that’s often the first color to fade,” the curator explains.

The exhibition includes a large touch-screen display, which allows visitors to explore the artist’s life and work in greater depth. It also provides access to close-up views of many of the paintings’ details. Corresponding photos from the period are paired with artistic details, such as the horse-drawn lawnmower that appears in one of Seifert’s works.

It’s the details of Seifert’s work that add so much to our understanding of Wisconsin’s past, Kapler says.

On Exhibit

“Wisconsin in Watercolor: The Farmscapes of Paul Seifert” is on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., Madison, through Aug. 30. For more information, visit historicalmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org.