Mary Nohl Inside & Outside: Biography of an Artist by Barbara Manger
The Greater Milwaukee Foundation (2008)
Mary Nohl (1914 – 2001) was a visionary artist who left a profound legacy on the Wisconsin landscape. Like Alex Jordan and Tom Every (aka Dr. Evermor) in the Driftless Area, Nohl’s eccentric paintings and sculptures exemplify her idiosyncratic individualism. When assessing an artist’s legacy and perspective, this inevitably leads to a biographical excavation. Will her upbringing, schooling, and personal relationship decode her aesthetic sensibility? Is art something to be solved like a math problem? Or Nohl in touch with a visionary genius existing beyond the elementary confines of personal biography and cryptic symbolism?
Mary Nohl was born in 1914, the daughter of a prominent Milwaukee attorney. As Max Nohl, Mary’s brother wrote in an unpublished essay called “Sketch of My Father,” “Father was furious if things on his work bench were not perfectly neat. … Neatness was an unquestioned priority. … At his law firm, he probably lost many 1000’s of dollars of income in the time he has spent salvaging discarded pieces of string, and tying them up in neat little coils.” Max later adds, “He wore ten cent store socks and ties – but made enough money to live luxuriously.” Mary Nohl Inside & Outside: Biography of the Artist, by Barbara Manger, recounts Mary’s early life with her exceedingly parsimonious father and “musically gifted and ethereal” mother. This lifestyle contributed to Mary becoming a scavenger, eventually including objects like driftwood into her art.
Mary would later graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. For ten years she ran a pottery studio. Between the years of 1960 and 1973 Nohl would encounter and endure a series of family tragedies and personal transitions. Her brother Max and his wife died in a head-on collision in 1960 and her mother died in 1968. Her mother’s death left her with a large inheritance. The death also allowed her to move into her parent’s lakeside residence in the posh Milwaukee neighborhood of Fox Point. After she moved in, she worked diligently to turn an otherwise unassuming suburban residence into a visionary Gesamtkunstwerk integrating architecture, sculpture, and painting.
Exemplifying the concept of misunderstood genius, Nohl brought together a melange of influences. These included her formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago and her globe-trotting travels. Her home, an otherwise ordinary house, exists smack dab in a wealthy northside Milwaukee neighborhood. Set amid sprawling imperious mansions and angular contemporary homes, Fox Point is eye candy for readers of Architectural Digest. Every house is usually big, gorgeous, and very proper. As Nohl’s art work dotted the lawn, she became victim of local vandals as well as neighborhood gossips who thought the place was an eye sore. Dr. Evermor and Alex Jordan had the advantage of building their gigantic visions in the middle of nowhere. To stand out in a modern metropolis is much more of a challenge.
Her aesthetic vision is unique and difficult to categorize. Critics and reviewers love taxonomy. It is much easier to describe something when a critic knows which box to place XYZ cultural product. Nohl’s art is simultaneously playful and eerie. Because of her reclusive habits and strange art, people began calling her home “The Witch’s House.”
When I was a child, my parents drove my sister and I to see it. (I have two sisters, but I don’t recall my youngest sister being with me in the particular car trip. But since this is an essay not a memoir, I’m not going to get hung up on specifics.) The art work was made from otherwise mundane materials: concrete, bottles, driftwood. The workaday material made the art works dotting the house seem more approachable. It made the home at once humble and slightly pagan in appearance. The figures perhaps representing deities of one person’s imagined cosmology.
Amid all the humanoid figures, dinosaurs, and fishes, Nohl fashioned giant concrete heads. Reminiscent of Easter Island heads, it would be the only other place in Milwaukee to see this type of imagery outside the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Oceania exhibit hall. Nohl created the heads between 1960 and 1998. Easter Island was one of the many places she visited in her world travels during her youth.
While the biographical information is a worthwhile explanation of the giant concrete heads, it is worth a digression to discuss tiki bars and supper clubs. During the Fifties and Sixties, tiki culture thrived in the United States. Returning G.I.s from the Pacific Theater returned home from the Second World War and created bars capitalizing on Polynesian imagery. Tiki bars dotted the East and West Coasts, but never really penetrated into the Midwest. In addition Wisconsin had the supper club phenomenon. These destination eateries peppered the landscape of northern Wisconsin. They began as entertainment spots catering to gangsters, thriving before Las Vegas became a viable vacation spot. To bring this back to Mary Nohl, her Easter Island-type heads were created sui generis. These were products of her creative genius, not a fragment of flotsam dredged up from the emergent tiki culture. Although, in the case of Nohl’s art, the line between art and kitsch is thin and blurry. Certain works might lean towards the kitschy, but it is wonderfully reassuring that she created these works without concern about the reactions from the art world.
She was reclusive, but she wasn’t a hermit. During her life she had an active social life, throwing dinner parties for her friends and neighbors. Before she died she made a giant contribution to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Her inheritance would be used to foster future students who showed artistic promise.
One final note. Mary Nohl was a lifelong Republican. Ever since voting for the first time for Alf Landon in 1936, she had been a loyal consistent voter. In criticism it is useful to look through several different lenses – biographical, historical, geographical – in the hopes of discovering new connections and insights into the subject. Sometimes this works. At other times, a critical lens can warp the subject. In this case the partisan lens is less than useful. Granted, for years readers and art aficionados have been conditioned to believe that an artistic sensibility means a liberal progressive mindset. The partisan lens and the historical evolution of the two major parties further complicate matters. The Republican Party of 1936 is not the same Republican Party of 2018. (The same goes for the Democratic Party.) In other words, it would be foolish to rush to judgment about her unique artistic vision because of who she voted for. It’s not that examination of an artist’s political attitudes isn’t useful (see Ezra Pound and Thomas Hart Benton as examples), but one should be wary of making broad-stroke generalization and knee-jerk reactionary comments because of their particular political affiliation. Politics and art can’t always be separated, but in this individual case the partisan lens offers only distraction from the subject.
Mary Nohl possessed a rare artistic genius. Through a combination of traditional art education and fortunate financial circumstances, she was able to create a unique vision. She created a world that is simultaneously hermetic, playful, and alien. Located along the lake shore of a wealthy Milwaukee neighborhood, Nohl’s “Witch’s House” is an oddity and a national treasure. In the end, her vision was eccentric, strange, and very American.