Mary Nohl's Cottage Mary Nohl (1914-2001)
North Beach Drive, Fox Point, WI, 53217, United States
The site is not open to the public; however, work by Mary Nohl will be on permanent display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Art Preserve, opening in 2020.
About the Artist/Site
Nohl earned her Bachelor of Fine Art art degree at the School of 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 in middle schools for a few years and then returned to Wisconsin, opened a commercial pottery studio, and moved back into her family’s cottage home on Beach Drive in Fox Point, a suburb north of Milwaukee. Located on land her family had acquired in 1924, at that time, due to limited roads, it was rural and not very accessible. 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, the interior, and the exterior of the small lakeside cottage into an expansive work of art that was inspired by her childhood roots in this 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 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 outdoor sculptural work in the summers, emanated out of a direct conversation with this particular site.
But as she worked, Beach Drive slowly underwent transformation. First it became the setting for small cottage-style vacation homes, but now the neighborhood boasts large ranch-style homes of affluent owners. Concerned about the future of her artwork, before Nohl died she worked out a contract with the Kohler Foundation, Inc., the country’s leading private 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. Mary 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.
The site is listed as a Milwaukee County Landmark and in the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. However, upon her death, the battle to preserve the site in its original location began, by neighbors who object to a site open to visitors, despite the fact that the site is owned by the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s nonprofit arm, Creation and Preservation Partners. After many years struggling with Beach Drive neighbors, it was announced in March 2014 that the site would be dismantled and shipped north to Sheboygan County, despite the fact that the artist had gifted the house, yard, and all of the art with the intention that it would truly be preserved in situ. Although she changed the legal language of the contract at the very end of her life, she had vocalized many times that she did not want it moved.
Only a few of the neighbors on Beach Drive vehemently opposed every preservation proposal and effort that had been floated over the past thirteen years. Their main concern was that the art environment brought additional traffic to this residential enclave, although they ostensibly purchased their houses in the area knowing the draw of the site. As they battled to move the site, they seem not to have understood its value to the broader world, nor its value as art, and considered it an eyesore.
Update, Sept. 2019:
Alex Gartelmann, site steward for the Mary Nohl Art Environment, has been living and working at Nohl's home since 2017. Using photos of the home as it appeared in 1998 as a reference (due to the critical mass of artworks present on the property at that time), the majority of the exterior of the home has been repainted, and much of the artwork applied to the siding has been restored or reproduced. Original outdoor artwork deemed too delicate to remain on the outside of the house is now a part of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s collection in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; pieces from this collection will be on permanent display at JMKAC’s new facility, the Art Preserve, which will open in 2020. The sculptures in the yard have had a series of conservation treatments and are monitored and maintained by JMKAC staff and conservators.
Gartelmann has also worked diligently on conserving the inside of the house, repainting the interior, conserving the objects, and precisely reinstalling the work—paintings, sculptures, ceramics, mobiles, painted furniture, stained glass, etc.—according to how Nohl curated her space. Almost every single object in the house was created or artistically altered by Nohl, meaning that JMKAC is also in the process of cataloguing thousands of objects.
Residing in the home for the past several years has afforded Gartelmann, who is also an artist, the unique opportunity to experience many of the seasonal and atmospheric effects that profoundly influenced Nohl’s practice. For example, Nohl painted the majority of her walls (including the ceiling and even the insides of cabinets) with small rectangles of carpet that she dipped in paint and applied directly to the walls over and over again. One day Gartelmann observed that the undulating pattern created by the carpet method appears to mimic the way that light and shadows play across the walls when reflected off of turbulent Lake Michigan waters. Gartelmann has also gained insight into Nohl’s color palette through observing her work in comparison to its surrounding environment throughout changing seasons, weather, and times of day.
Though an incredible amount of work has been done since Kohler Foundation and then JMKAC acquired the Nohl home, property, and collection, there are still several years worth of conservation projects in the pipeline. There are no plans to open the house to the public; however, those interested in observing Nohl’s work are encouraged to stay tuned for the opening of the Art Preserve in 2020.
SPACES Archives Holdings
Map & Site Information
North Beach Drive
Fox Point, WI, 53217 us
Latitude/Longitude: 43.1565894 / -87.8907605