Nohl turned garden into gallery

Artist's Fox Point home drew gawkers, controversy

Journal Sentinel
Posted: Dec. 24, 2001

Mary Nohl, the prolific painter, potter and silversmith who created controversy as well as beauty when she filled her North Shore property with epic-scale works of concrete sculpture, has died at age 87.

7477Mary Nohl
Mary Nohl posed in April with some of the sculptures that have made her Fox Point home a North Shore attraction. Nohl died Saturday. Officials said that the Kohler Foundation Inc. would preserve her property and art.
Mary Nohl, 1991
She did her art the way she wanted it, and didn't care what anyone thought, and never cared about showing.
- Rosalind Couture,
close friend and fellow teacher

Nohl, whose art-bedecked residence became known throughout the community as "the witch's house," died at her home Saturday. She had been in poor health for some time.

Nohl's home, originally built by her parents in 1925 as a summer cottage and expanded for year-round use in 1943, will be preserved for future generations, as will her art, according to Nancy Moulton, preservation coordinator for the non-profit Kohler Foundation Inc.

Arrangements for the Kohler Foundation to take over Nohl's property and art were made in advance of her death, Moulton said.

Friends said a memorial gathering, possibly featuring examples of her work, will be held at 10 a.m. Jan. 12 at Forest Home Cemetery Chapel, 2405 W. Forest Home Ave.

A former art teacher and graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nohl won national recognition for the quality of her work, even as neighbors protested the attention - and sightseers - the work brought to her lakefront enclave along fashionable Beach Drive in Fox Point.

Nohl had three exhibits of her work at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, which already owns a representative sampling of her jewelry, painting and sculpture.

Moulton said a small gallery bearing Nohl's name will be opened on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next year.

The first show, a small retrospective of Nohl's work, will be curated by the Kohler Arts Center and chosen out of its permanent collection.

Ruth DeYoung Kohler, director of the arts center and president of the foundation, was unavailable for comment Sunday. However, she is known to admire Nohl's work. She said in a 1996 Journal Sentinel article:

"A lot of people think of these artists as quaint, eccentric or innocent. I don't think they are. They are well aware of what's going on in the world. And often they create powerful works of art."

Nohl herself was indifferent to any controversy her work provoked.

"Mary was her own person," said Rosalind Couture, a fellow teacher at Steuben Junior High school in the 1940s and a close friend for 56 years.

"She was very different. She did not run in the same channels as other people. She did her art the way she wanted it, and didn't care what anyone thought, and never cared about showing."

Other people's opinions - even if they were hostile - didn't interfere with Nohl's creativity, Couture said.

"She kept creating from morning to night, all the years I knew her. She had a childlike quality about her, a naivete. She was an honest person."

Nohl, who was born in Milwaukee on Sept. 6, 1914, to Leo F. and Emma E. Nohl, showed an early aptitude for art. She earned a degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, then got a job teaching art on the junior high school level.

She later opened a commercial pottery studio and produced vases, lamp bases and cups for sale to floral studios.

Reminiscent of Easter Island

In 1968, after the death of her mother, she started making sculptures, reminiscent of those found on Easter Island, for her spacious yard overlooking Lake Michigan.

Over the next few decades she acquired an eye-filling array of artworks, both outdoors and indoors.

In the 1960s, her garden collection became a kleptomaniac's dream as local teenagers and fraternities seeking the perfect prank stole hundreds of pieces of her prized sculptures and unique collectibles. One of her wooden sculptures was set afire, and vandals would throw rocks at her windows. To combat such vandalism, Nohl would blast a foghorn at the looting youths.

"This usually scatters the marauders," she said in a 1979 Milwaukee Journal story. "But now they've gotten used to it, and will often yell, 'Let's hear the foghorn.' "

So in 1979, Nohl put up a chain-link fence and strung barbed wire across the wire fence and her trees, which had her creative objects hanging from their limbs.

The Village Board warned Nohl that the barbed wire was against city ordinances, but they did not press to have it removed.

Then-Fox Point Police Capt. Charles Pieper said in a 1973 Milwaukee Sentinel story that his police force had responded to hundreds of incidents at Nohl's home.

"Miss Nohl gets more police protection than anybody else in Fox Point and still we haven't been able to round up all the troublemakers," Pieper said.

Nohl was particularly irritated by the nickname, "the witch's house," that grew up about the property.

In a 1996 interview she said she saw the way she was being dealt with as evidence of prejudice against "women who use tools."

But she had a sense of humor, too. Visitors to the house often chuckled when they looked down at her doorstep and found, spelled out in black stones, the single word: "Boo."

Journal Sentinel reporter Franny White contributed to this report.


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