Visual Art

To The Beat Of A Different Drum

Exhibit of works by Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern presents two fascinating Milwaukee mavericks.

By - Feb 11th, 2022 02:38 pm
Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern Mid-Century Mavericks. Photo courtesy of the Portrait Society Gallery.

Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern Mid-Century Mavericks. Photo courtesy of the Portrait Society Gallery.

Even many who don’t know art know about Mary Nohl. Often referred to as a “witch,” she owned the house on Beach Drive in Fox Point which was often a destination for teenagers to snoop around and catch a glimpse of the Easter Island-like concrete faces filling the yard and lending a ghostly surreal presence to Lake Michigan in the moonlight.

By contrast, Nohl’s near contemporary, Milwaukee artist Lucia Stern, had a quiet, anything but notorious career, doing her art while serving as a docent and lecturer. Works by the two women are now featured in a show at the Portrait Society: “Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern Mid-Century Mavericks.” 

Both were wealthy women, with the freedom to do the kind of art they wanted, though they were not outsider artists but worked within the traditions and training of the art establishment. They inadvertently helped to shape the art of the present by pursuing their own very personal visions. Stern was about 20 years older than Nohl, but they did travel in the same circles. 

Both artists used primarily line in their drawings. Both used “found materials” and were drawn to experimentation. Both drew on the  shapes of living organisms, but not literally (Stern was purely abstract.) Both did paintings, drawing, sculpture and collages, while Stern also did mixed media works. Examples of all are represented in a show that is as interesting for its back story as its art. 

Mary Nohl (1914-2001) grew up in a well-to-do family. Her father was a highly successful lawyer and a stern but loving parent. He believed his daughter should learn whatever sparked her interest and insisted she be allowed to skip Home Economics in high school and take Mechanical Drawing instead. She was the only girl in her class to win competitions with her own designed and built model airplanes. Later on he supported her ventures into a pottery studio and would help her make sculptures and improvements on the Beach Dr. property. “Whatever makes Mary happy” was her mother’s refrain. 

She was adventurous and curious as a child and was constantly building and creating. She used whatever materials were at hand and this would continue into her later art. Her parents were famously frugal and were recycling and repurposing long before it was fashionable. They did not skimp on travel, however, and took Mary and her brother on fabulous trips. At the age of 13 they went to Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. This was the beginning of Mary’s love of travel which lasted into the 1970’s. 

She attended the Art Institute of Chicago for Visual Art and lived a life devoted to art. She drew, painted and kept journals of her experiences. She lived frugally and travelled to recharge. “There is nothing more exciting than the act of creating,” Nohl once said. She was grateful to be able to work on her art full time and recognized that the wealth inherited from her family allowed her to do this. In return, she gave $11 million to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to support generations of other artists, which is now use to fund the annual Mary L. Nohl Fellowships for Individual Artists.

Nohl has the reputation of a recluse, but I think she was private not reclusive. She is not an outsider artist or primitive as she is sometimes called. Her idiosyncratic style is grounded in her own personal expression and reflects her life, childhood memories and experiences. Compared to Stern, Nohl creates work with a more rustic, hand-hewn feel. Her large almost brutalistic figures have a monolithic feel. Her ceramics are much more delicate, but never really precious. They are small, table top pieces of fish, heads and fantastic animals. 

Some time after her death I was lucky enough to view her home and yard, where her art was created and it made a powerful impression. But when divorced from this environment and exhibited in a gallery, the individual works are less impressive, charming but a bit clunky to my eyes. (That latter quality might help explain the primitive label sometimes attached to her work.) Still, she is certainly unique. 

I was less familiar with and more intrigued by the work of Lucia Stern. Less is known about her life (1895-1987). Her birth name was Martha Ida Lucia Karker, she grew up in Milwaukee and married Erich Stern, a lawyer. She had a degree in music from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, but travel changed her as well. She spent a lot of time in Paris and got to know artists like Picasso and Brancusi, and was even a portrait model for the artist László Moholy-Nagy. She also spent time in New York, meeting artists like Steichen and Stieglitz. That sounds like a pretty fun life. 

At some point she began to work on her own art, and like Nohl, could afford to devote many decades of her life to it. She was also a Milwaukee Art Museum docent for 30 years, an Art History lecturer and helped found the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University.

Stern’s work was mostly non-representational, pure abstraction using acrylic paint in bold shapes and colors and layering, netting or stitching into the surface of the piece. Her mother was a lace maker and it clearly had an impact on her art. As did work of artists like Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi. Stern also gravitated to collage, which was used in Cubism and Surrealism and by European artists she admired.  

Her boldly colored abstract paintings are less interesting to me than her collages and mixed media works combining painting, delicate line drawings and collage. They are more complex and layered and engaging, the most subtle works in this exhibit.  

While Nohl’s work feels more personal, recalling childhood playfulness and reflecting her love of nature, travel and whimsy, while Stern’s is more a reflection of her experience in the world of high art, of great artists and movements like the Bauhaus school, about design, color, line and art for art’s sake.

There is finally, one other interesting aspect of this show: The style of Mid-Century Modern, which is reflected in the art here, is very fashionable now with lots of people throwing out their antique /vintage furniture and objects for the more recent vintage of the 50’s and 60’s.

In short there is a lot to consider in this exhibit, yet another intriguing show by Portrait Society owner Debra Brehmer, who is something of a maverick herself. 

Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern Mid-Century Mavericks Gallery

“Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern Mid-Century Mavericks,” through March 19, at the Portrait Society, 207 E. Buffalo St., #526.

One thought on “Visual Art: To The Beat Of A Different Drum”

  1. says:

    Great review of this show!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us