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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mary Nohl’s Independent Spirit, ‘Inside & Outside’

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During the past quarter-century, the exhibition of outsider art has encompassed artists' domestic spaces. Notably, Wisconsin's own Kohler Arts Center has specialized in acquiring and preserving the work of artists whose large-scale oeuvres exist in and around their homes.

In Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside, authors Barbara Manger and Janine Smith provide a rare glimpse into the life of one such artist, the fiercely independent and elusive Mary Nohl (1914-2001), whose Fox Point home was her canvas. Her neighbors often misunderstood Nohl's eccentricities. And her home, dubbed the "witch's house," occupied the curious minds of children and gawkers of all ages who drove past or, worse, vandalized her property.

Nohl wasn't a witch, but she conjured faces and figures from assemblages of driftwood or poured concrete. Nor was she an outsider artist in the classic sense. Educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nohl was no naf, but chose to work on the fringes. She was an obsessive collector, wrapping lengths of jute into human figures, or boiling chicken bones to sterilize them for a second life as sculpture.

Inside & Outside provides a rich context for Nohl's independent spirit. Manger and Smith delve into Nohl's past and her domestic space, the latter of which is off-limits to the public due to zoning restrictions. Even in her private journals, Nohl maintained a sense of detachment; she was acutely aware or prescient that someday they would be found and read. Her internal life, it seems, was rather tame, tempered by a self-imposed period of solitude.

"Her inability to compromise or forgive led to serious splits or terminations of relationships throughout her life," the authors note. "Indeed, her art and her work on the property were her main and essential focus."

Posthumously, however, Nohl's work and her life have been brought from the fringes to the center. In addition to letting the authors into her life for Inside & Outside, Nohl bequeathed her estate to the Kohler Arts Center for preservation. She left her legacy as a participant and patron of Milwaukee's artistic community with an $11.3 million gift to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, earmarked for arts spending on future generations.

Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside is an invaluable resource and at present the only legal way in which the curious can comprehensively view her work. Manger and Smith sign the book and discuss the artist's life and work at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon on Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m.

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