Toward the end of her years, the reclusive artist Mary Nohl was plagued with vandals, intruders, children who thought she was a witch and other indignities. Strangers came by boat, by car and on foot to her lakefront home outside Milwaukee, hoping to catch a glimpse of the large cement sculptures that she placed around her house. Those who made it onto her property often damaged her works or took away pieces.
But Nohl also had many her admirers who appreciated her great talent. Today her work is on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. In Mary Nohl: Inside Outside, Barbara Manger and Janine Smith give us a rich portrait of this unusual woman.
Nohl was born to wealthy but frugal parents in 1914. Though they were stingy with the food they put on the table, the Nohl’s spent money on travel and encouraged their daughter’s artistic bent. In college, she drew and painted and discovered ceramics. After deciding that she disliked teaching, Nohl persuaded her father to help her finance a pottery studio. He purchased a building, kiln, and all the necessary supplies and equipment that Nohl would need and she happily set about designing bowls, lamps, tiles, figurines and vases. She made molds for her work and began production. The work is interesting, often graced with almost primitive suggestions of humans. But Nohl was neither a businesswoman nor a marketer, and the pottery was not a financial success. She eventually closed it.
Once her parents died, she became sole owner of the Lake Michigan cottage that was her family’s second home, and, no longer needing to be concerned about an income, she gradually made the little estate into her work of art. She filled and surrounded the house with her sculptures, mobiles, ceramics, paintings, painted fabrics, jewelry and other creations. She worked on her art everyday, driven by a strong creative force deep within. Nohl occasionally exhibited her work, and she had a circle of friends who saw her for the artist she was, but she made art primarily for herself.
This is not a typical pottery book, but if you are a bit of an artistic voyeur like me, and like a peek into the working lives of other artists, you will probably enjoy this book as much as I did. The “package” as they say, is beautiful, with heavy stock and French flaps, and lots of photos, a package I suspect Mary Nohl herself would love. But it also a book to think about: why is it that late in the 20th century, an older woman who was different could still be taunted by her neighbors and called a witch by the children? And what is it that makes some artists turn their entire surroundings into their art while most focus on individual works?