On Jan. 21, the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art opened Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern: Midcentury Mavericks. This exhibition puts into conversation two local female artists working in the Modern era: Mary Nohl (1914-2001), the once controversial, now beloved artist of Fox Point, and the largely unsung local artist Lucia Stern (1895-1987). The gallery presents 75 pieces, mostly from the collection of Ric Hartman, an art dealer and specialist in historic Wisconsin art. The work includes paintings, ceramics, sculptures, mixed media works, and sketches– many of them being shown publicly for the first time in many decades.
Despite producing prolific bodies of work, the two artists were misunderstood and underappreciated during their lifetimes. Mary Nohl is known as a local artist who lived and worked in her home in Fox Point, colorfully transforming the interior and exterior of her house and grounds with interventions including whimsical, large concrete sculptures of creatures and figures, paint, and embellishments with found objects like glass and driftwood sourced from the lakeshore adjacent to her home.
Nohl studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, became an art teacher, and then operated a pottery studio before moving in with her parents to their cottage in Fox Point. She practiced her art-making daily throughout her life, and was adept at creating across many mediums beyond sculpture and ceramics, including jewelry smithing, drawing and painting. Despite her status today as a revered local artist, during her life she was an outsider in the community of Fox Point, proliferating her artistic environment despite pushback and harassment from locals.
During her lifetime, Mary Nohl exhibited her work only sporadically, at small galleries. Today, the majority of Nohl’s life’s work is preserved by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and much of it is on rotating display at the Art Preserve in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Her home environment is also in the process of being preserved, but as of yet remains closed to the public. Mary Nohl’s creative legacy has been generative beyond the inspiration her work provides to contemporary artists; the Mary Nohl Fund, administered through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, distributes significant financial annual grants to local emerging and established artists through a juried selection process.
While Mary Nohl’s story is the stuff of local legend and contemporary conversations, Lucia Stern’s life and work is largely unknown and has been exhibited only scantily since her death in 1987, though she was suggested to be one of the early practitioners of abstract art in the United States. Much like Nohl, Stern worked out of her house on Shephard Avenue, experimenting with found objects and displaying works inside and around her home. Unlike Nohl, Lucia Stern began her artistic practice in full in 1935, at the age of forty. Revisiting skills including hand stitching, which she practiced in her youth, Stern approached her art practice as a full time job, transforming her living and dining room into a studio space, and creating a gallery in her basement, where she would stage works including large fabric banners and wire mobile sculptures. Stern was also a docent and devoted volunteer at the Milwaukee Art Center (now, Museum).
Like Mary Nohl was inspired by her proximity to Lake Michigan, it could be said that Lucia Stern was influenced by proximity to Modern artwork and experiences traveling to Europe with her husband, lawyer Erich Stern. Lucia Stern documented her non-objective artistic aesthetic and musings on creation in a 1971 zine called “Criteria for Modern Art,” which, according to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Chief Educator Emerita Barbara Brown Lee, Stern may have created on a copy machine at the Art Center.
Despite her status as a “housewife” living in Milwaukee, Stern’s artistic practice was cutting edge. She created artwork in a huge range of media including fabric, collage, wood, glass and lucite. Her practice earned her the respect and admiration of artistic figures including artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Calder. Stern exhibited work at what would become the Guggenheim in New York City. In 1977, the Milwaukee Art Center presented Lucia Stern: A Life in Design. In 1989, after her death, there was a retrospective of Stern’s work at the Haggerty Museum of Art. During her life, Stern was an opinionated champion of the Milwaukee Art Center’s collection’s expansion and evolution. She created a Museum fund, the Lucia K. Stern Trust, which exists to this day to support acquisitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum. With no direct descendents, after her death, the majority of Stern’s artwork was moved to California by a distant relative, and eventually abandoned in a storage locker in L.A.. The work was then auctioned off to an antique dealer.
The works on view at the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art represent these two artists’ incredible range across their respective long, productive practices. In a series of sketches drawn from life, we see a young Mary Nohl’s gestural confidence and distinct figurative style present in the shapely forms. Meanwhile, Lucia Stern displays fearlessness in her ability to compose abstract works in bold shapes and scales, as in the case of a long multimedia painting that is 6 inches wide and 48 inches long. Stern’s most striking and developed works are the multimedia pieces, which incorporate paper, fabric, mesh and hand-stitched thread, to create large geometric compositions with compelling depth. Meanwhile, Mary Nohl’s illustrations convey her distinct sensibilities as an imaginative wellspring, with a unique eye for both composition and color.
Both Stern and Nohl were limited in their lifetimes by their reputations for being eccentric female artists who played by their own rules. And indeed, in their own way, each embraced the whimsical and the weird through their art. A wall of sculptures in the gallery speaks to this dimension of their practices. Stern’s wooden beasts are fanciful and reminiscent of toys, while Nohl’s glazed clay creatures look like children’s book illustrations that have sprung to life.
As we move further away from the century in which these artists were alive and working in Milwaukee, the scope and story of their practices is becoming history – a history that in Stern’s case, is largely untold. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this unique pairing of two of Milwaukee’s most visionary artists from the last century.
Visitors are welcome to visit the gallery from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, or make a private appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.