The question looms large: Why preserve an art environment on its original site if there is money to move it to a location that might be more suited to “public access” and less contested by the neighborhood?
The Mary Nohl (1914-2001) art environment is located in a wealthy, beachfront neighborhood on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Although Nohl’s family acquired the land in 1924 when, due to limited roads, it was rural and inaccessible, the area slowly underwent transformation. First, it became the setting for vacation homes, with small cottages dotting the woods, and a beach area located beneath a steep bluff. From the 1950s onward, with the postwar shift to a suburban middle class, the area became subdivided into large ranch houses and acre-sized lawns. Today, a lakeside home with an unobstructed view on a generous slice of yard might be valued from $600,000 to over a million dollars.
The one constant on Beach Drive through all of this change has been the Mary Nohl environment, which now stands in sharp physical and philosophical contrast to the neighborhood climate. And this has become the problem.
Nohl earned her art degree at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937 and a teaching certificate in 1939. Most of her classmates graduated, married, and stepped into family roles, but Nohl wanted to make art. She taught at middle schools for a few years and then returned to Wisconsin, opened a commercial pottery studio, and moved back into the cottage home on Beach Drive. She worked in an interdisciplinary manner, taking on new materials with enthusiasm. She melted her mother’s wedding silver to make jewelry, carved logs washed up from the beach, prided herself in mastering power tools, mixed cement, made collages, painted, drew, sewed hemp figures, turned beach stones into rings and amulets, and drip-painted her furniture, carpets, and telephone.
From the 1950s until her death in 2001 at age 87, Mary Nohl transformed the yard, as well as both the interior and exterior of the house, into an expansive work of art that was inspired by her childhood roots in this charming setting. Sand and stones from the beach were used to mix the concrete that formed the many yard sculptures. Cutout wooden reliefs of swimmers and boaters created patterns on the house. Wind chimes once hung in the trees, translating the significant breezes into aural compositions. Nohl used what was on hand for her artwork, being both resourceful and inspired by the process of making something from the land. All of her endeavors, be it jewelry making and painting during the winter months or yard work in the summers, emanated out of a direct conversation with this particular site.
Before Nohl died she worked out a contract with the Kohler Foundation, the country’s leading nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving art environments. She gifted her house and all of her artwork to the foundation for preservation. She also left $11 million to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to distribute to individual artists to help support their abilities to focus on their work. Nohl had been grateful to have had the financial resources to be a full time artist (her father was a prominent attorney who had invested well). She felt that there couldn’t be a more meaningful pursuit, nor a more pleasurable one, than the engagement of making, of using one’s hands, of design and invention.
Her artwork and environment serve as a monument to the reasons why art is important in this world. Many of these reasons become diluted within the professional arena of galleries and museums, when the marketplace creates an alternative value system and channels access according to economic status and education. By its nature, the professional art system narrows the conversation about certain art practices, even as it seeks to promote, display, and distribute them.
Nohl worked outside of those systems. She had discovered early on that by creating her own “museum” on Beach Drive, she could share her work broadly and still receive feedback, engagement and meaningful exchange. Other artists have done the same: Tressa Prisbrey, Helen Martins, and Kea Tawana are all excellent examples. Each of these artists chose to work within their home sphere and integrate their production into a more diverse and lived-in cultural landscape.
People found their way to Mary Nohl’s environment on their own, by accident or word of mouth, and they processed it independently from a guided critique, which is very different than wandering into the frame of an art gallery. There was no one on Beach Drive declaring it “art,” which left a sense of wonder in place. Who did this, and why? Is it a shrine, a cemetery, a staged fable?
Some visitors left notes of approval and gratitude in Nohl’s mailbox. These responses suggested that the site made people feel that the world still held possibilities of independence, invention, and self-definition, in contrast to society’s more confining and controlling forces. Others made up stories about the site, spreading rumors that a witch lived there, that she had murdered her family, or that her husband and son were lost in the lake and she subsequently went crazy and made the art to guide their spirits home. Teenagers came to revel, share an adventure, and scare their girlfriends.
Although the site has been named a Milwaukee County Landmark and recognized as an historic landmark on the Wisconsin Registry of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, and everything was in place to preserve it, a years-long battle has taken place to keep it whole and in place. Now owned by the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s new nonprofit arm Creation and Preservation Partners, it was abruptly announced in March 2014 that the site will be dismantled and shipped north to Sheboygan County, home to the art center. The artist, however, had gifted the house, yard, and all of the art with the intention that it would truly be preserved in situ. Although she had apparently changed the legal language of the contract at the very end of her life, she had vocalized many times that she did not want her work to be moved. She also had no idea—or at least, never expressed it—that her neighbors would so resolutely stonewall the idea of legalizing public access to her site.
Only a few of the neighbors on Beach Drive vehemently opposed every preservation proposal and effort over the past thirteen years. Their main concern was that the art environment brought additional traffic to this residential enclave, although, of course, they had purchased their houses in the area knowing the draw of the site. As they battled to prevent even limited public access to Nohl’s work, they seem not to have understood its value to the broader world, nor its value as art. Some of the neighbors on Beach Drive see no “magic” in the site or any meaning in the endeavor of this one woman and her wheelbarrow; rather, they consider it an eyesore.
The Kohler Foundation and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center had decided to fight this battle privately and quietly, outside of public input and press coverage, due to the sensitivity and contentiousness of the neighbors. After a flood damaged the heating and electrical systems in 2010, the Kohler removed everything from the house and undertook conservation of damaged objects. But, after much consideration and evaluation, they made the difficult decision not to repair the house at that time. And, with the neighbors intransigent to all proposals regarding public visitation, Kohler has, for the moment at least, backed off. The current plan is to dismantle and re-assemble the house, along with the exterior sculptures, an effort that will be partially funded by the sale of the lakeside property.
However,moving Mary Nohl’s site is not preserving it. It is creating a facsimile, an approximation, a managed and guided experience that is divorced from its most significant context: its place. As Walter Benjamin stated in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
The art world can be an unsettling place where the comforts of social order and rational thinking are rewritten, often in a confusing manner. Most people adhere to the value of the art world only if they are “within” the art world. Nohl’s angry neighbors may very well be members of the Milwaukee Art Museum who take pride and gain enjoyment from the exhibitions and offerings there. The hand of authority guides them. But it may be more difficult for them to understand the value of an unlabeled “environment” built by one independent, unmarried woman who ascribed only to her own system of common sense, invention, and stubborn intellectual curiosity. Anyone who knew her recognized her intelligence and wit. She was not strange or eccentric, although she was often so typecast. Rather, she was smart enough to resist and remain skeptical of social mores and conventions. If she didn’t need new clothes because her old ones were not worn out, she didn’t buy them. Guided by practicality and curiosity, Nohl wanted to make art. And that’s what she did.
And this highlights one of the major components of this crisis: Not only are we losing a globally important art environment, but, as art environments built by women are relatively rare, we are losing one of three of the world’s most important extantenvironments built independently by a woman. In South Africa, Helen Martins’ Owl House has been preserved and is now the pride of the village, although it drew skepticism and derision when Martins was alive. In California, Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey’s Bottle Village is surviving, but it is not still as secure, stable, or accessible as its distinction warrants. We need monuments made by women to buoy the confidence of other women. We need to respect artists whose creative lives take place in the domestic sphere. Rarely does a work of art have such a profound impact on the people who come to it on their own terms and value it for their own reasons.
Art environments often exist tenuously amidst friction in a world that turns on routines, assimilation, and sameness. Individuals including Emery Blagdon, Fred Smith, Sabato Rodia, Mary Nohl, Tressa Prisbrey, and Helen Martins, who make something unique, often out of very little, should be considered our contemporary prophets; those who survived the crushing forces of late capitalism. And rather than disparaging them, we need to celebrate the passion and the potency of their work,
It seems fated, now, that despite the Kohler’s tireless efforts, we are going to lose this major art environment. The process of dismantling and relocating the site will be costly, arduous and complex, and it will undoubtedly take many years. But by moving Mary Nohl’s environment much will be lost in the process; the physical elements may survive and become something else in a new location, but the soul of the site will be left behind. To lose this site where the art is woven into the power and history of the land, where we witness a seamlessness of enterprise that we cannot experience in a museum or a re-creation of a site, is to lose something incontrovertibly rare.
Made by a woman who defied the social imperative in the 1950s, Nohl gave us an example of how joy is procured from wood, stone, and a summer day, and how making things with one’s hands may be the most productive and profoundly human activity anyone can ever do. Perhaps this is the worst part of it all. We have so much to learn from Mary Nohl.