Book to dispel witch lady myth

Shorewood, Fox Point women to release biography on Nohl

April 28, 2009

The word "junk" did not seem to exist in Mary Nohl's vocabulary.

The Fox Point artist, who died in 2001 at age 86, is known throughout the North Shore - and beyond - for her eccentric cottage home and art made with such disparate items as wire, hemp, chicken bones and pebbles.

Shortly before Nohl's death, author Barbara Manger and designer Janine Smith began working on a biographical book chronicling the artist's life and influence.

"It literally took us years to sort through everything," Smith, also from Fox Point, said. "It was a long process."

"Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside" will be released Friday, May 1. Retailing for $29.95, the 136-page book will be available at and select bookstores.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go toward maintaining Nohl's artwork collection on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.

Unconventional art

The book includes information on Nohl's family and formative years, and photos of inside and outside her Fox Point home.

"This is the public's way of being able to peek inside the house," Smith said.

Nohl left her home and personal art collection to the Kohler Foundation, an arts organization. Early on, there was talk of making the home into a museum, but that was squelched because of Fox Point zoning codes and concerns from neighbors.

Nohl had long been referred to as the "witch lady" - a fact mentioned in the book - because of her unconventional art, which included paintings, ceramics and jewelry. Her collection also boasted numerous sculptures, several of which are on display in her front yard.

Manger and Smith said they are hoping to dispel some of the rumors surrounding this misunderstood person who was reclusive through portions of her life.

"She didn't conform to standards, and because of that there were some urban legends," Manger of Shorewood said.

Although she never married, and did not have children, legends about Nohl killing her husband and turning her children to stone have circulated.

Some insight through diaries

Manger considered Nohl a friend. Despite that, there were many facets of the artist's life Manger knew little to nothing about. Because of that, Manger and Smith poured through artifacts from Nohl's estate after she died. Some information was gleaned from meticulously maintained diaries.

"There wasn't anything too serious or intimate in them," Smith said. "They captured how her day was spent. You got a picture of what was coming into her life."

Manger added, "She was very frugal, rigid, disciplined, controlled, organized and regimented. Everything was structured and planned out; there was very little room for spontaneity."

Throughout the course of their friendship, Manger said Nohl never explained the inspiration behind her art. Sculptures in the front yard of Nohl's home include a dinosaur, a man holding a fish that is about as large as he is and several caricatures - some without arms.

"The best art speaks to the heart, and her work does that," Manger said. "That said, there's a definite mystery to the message of her art."

Artist had giving nature

Despite her eccentricities, Manger and Smith maintain Nohl was a giving person. That is perhaps best represented by the $11.3 million she gave to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation after she died. The organization has since created the Mary Nohl Foundation, which helps fund arts programs and provides scholarships and assistance to individual artists.

GMF has paid for all costs associated with publishing the book.

"She was known to open her doors to school groups and other people," Smith said. "But she would do it on her own terms."

Manger described her friend simply as "kind."

"She really loved having children come to visit her," Manger said. "But the reality was she was so focused on her art that she really didn't have a lot of time for people."

Dave Fidlin can be reached at (262) 446-6603.


WHAT: Shorewood author Barbara Manger will sign copies of her book "Mary Nohl: Inside & Outside."

WHEN: 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 9

WHERE: Barnes and Nobel at Bayshore Town Center, 5755 N. Bayshore Drive, Glendale

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