Madisonians are familiar with large scale "outsider" folk art from the concrete sculptures of Waubesa Street's Sid Boyum that are now installed across the near east side. Other notable southern Wisconsin folk art sites include Nick Engelbert's Grandview (near Hollandale), and Dr. Evermor's art garden (near Sauk City). But less well known in Madison is work of Mary Nohl of Milwaukee.
Known around Milwaukee as "the witch lady," Nohl transformed her family's cottage on Lake Michigan, in Fox Point, into a complex art environment that both resembles other Wisconsin outsider art sites and transcends them.
The story of how this came to be is told in the new book Mary Nohl: Inside and Out by Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, published by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and distributed by University of Wisconsin Press.
Most "outsider" artists are by definition untrained: Engelbert was a farmer, Tom Every (Dr. Evermor) was a salvage man and welder. Nohl, on the other hand, was well off -- her father a successful Milwaukee lawyer. She was educated at Rollins College and the Art Institute of Chicago. Although she taught art in elementary and high schools for several years as a young woman and also ran her own pottery studio for a few years, she had an inheritance and didn't need a lot of extra money to support herself.
Even before her parents died and left her the Lake Michigan house, she was living there and transforming it from a cottage to a unique art environment. Unlike Dr. Evermor's Art Garden, Mary Nohl's "witch house" is owned by the Kohler Foundation and not open to the public, so Mary Nohl: Inside and Out offers a rare glimpse into the space, with many photos of the interior and the art found there as well as closeups of the large sculptures outdoors. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and the foundation hopes someday to turn it into a museum.
Although she was well off, Nohl "went to extreme measures to be frugal," the authors write. Although she was classically trained as an artist, "her own approach to materials was quirky and eccentric" and found objects often became the basis of her pieces. Shells, driftwood, chicken bones -- Nohl "was a compulsive saver," the authors note. Although they also mention that "periods of depression...occasionally descended upon her," there's no extended discussion of Nohl's mental health.
The book reproduces many examples Nohl's more conventional early paintings and drawings, sculptures and the products of her commercial pottery studio. Her two-dimensional art shows an arts-and-crafts, Wiener Werkstatte sensibility yet with a unusually fluid line. Her pottery blends art deco with African influences. Her "spook" figures, odd little ghostlike blobs, are hard to categorize.
Traces of these styles can be seen in her large-scale, outdoor work of concrete and wood, even while those pieces seem more related to concrete art as produced by unschooled artists like Fred Smith (the artist behind Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips). And there's not enough placing her in the context of other artists in Wisconsin or the country. It's mentioned that she saved clippings about Simon Rodia's Watts Towers and Fred Smith's Concrete Park: "Although Mary did not see these sites in person, she was of like mind with Rodia and Smith," but what that like mind consisted of is passed over. Is there some kind of common compulsion to create these kinds of large creature-sculptures?
Regardless, Mary Nohl: Inside and Out is a beautiful book and a fascinating document that contributes to greater knowledge of an important Wisconsin folk artist.
Manger and Smith will give a presentation at the Chazen Museum of Art on October 7 at 5:30 p.m. (room L-140) as part of the