On January 21st the Portrait Society contemporary art gallery open Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern: Mavericks of the Mid-Century. This exhibition brings together two local artists who worked in the modern era: Mary Nohl (1914-2001), the once controversial, now popular artist of Fox Point, and the largely unsung local artist Lucia Stern (1895-1987). The gallery features 75 pieces, primarily from the collection of Ric Hartman, a Wisconsin art dealer and specialist in historical art. The work includes paintings, ceramics, sculptures, mixed media works and sketches – many of which are being shown publicly for the first time in many decades.
Although they produced prolific work, the two artists were misunderstood and underestimated during their lifetime. Mary Nohl is known as a local artist who lived and worked at her home in Fox Point, colorfully transforming the interior and exterior of her home and grounds with interventions including whimsical, large concrete sculptures of creatures and figures, paint and embellishments with found objects such as Glass and driftwood from the lake shore near her house.
Nohl studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, became an art teacher and then ran a pottery studio before moving in with her parents in their cottage in Fox Point. She practiced art daily throughout her life and was adept at creating in many mediums beyond sculpture and ceramics, including jewellery, drawing and painting. Despite her current status as a revered local artist, she was an outsider in the Fox Point community throughout her life, spreading her artistic environment despite reluctance and harassment from local people.
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During her lifetime, Mary Nohl only sporadically exhibited her work in small galleries. Today, most 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 being preserved, but has so far remained closed to the public. Mary Nohl’s creative legacy has been prolific beyond the inspiration her work provides to contemporary artists; The Mary Nohl Fund, administered by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, provides significant financial annual grants to emerging and established local artists through a jury selection process.
While Maria NohlThe story of Lucia Stern is the stuff of local legend and contemporary conversation, but the life and work of Lucia Stern is largely unknown and has been sparsely exhibited since her death in 1987, although she is considered one of the early practitioners of abstract art in the United States became states. Much like Nohl, Stern worked from her Shephard Avenue home, experimenting with found objects and exhibiting work in and around her home. In contrast to Nohl, Lucia Stern fully began her artistic activity in 1935, at the age of forty. By reviving skills like hand sewing that she practiced in her youth, Stern approached her art practice as a full-time pursuit, converting her living and dining room into a studio space and establishing a gallery in her basement, where she also staged large works Fabric banners and moving wire sculptures. Stern was also a lecturer and dedicated volunteer at the Milwaukee Art Center (now the museum).
Just as Mary Nohl was inspired by her proximity to Lake Michigan, one could say that Lucia Stern was influenced by her proximity to modern art and experiences traveling to Europe with her husband, the lawyer Erich Stern. Lucia Stern documented her non-objective artistic aesthetic and her thoughts on making in a 1971 zine entitled “Criteria for Modern Art,” which, according to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Chief Educator Emerita, Barbara Brown-LeeStern may have created on a copier at the Art Center.
Despite her status as a “housewife” in Milwaukee, Stern’s artistic practice was groundbreaking. She created artworks in a variety of mediums 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 later became the Guggenheim in New York City. In 1977 the Milwaukee Art Center presented itself Lucia Stern: A life in design. In 1989, after her death, the Haggerty Museum of Art held a retrospective of Stern’s work. During her life, Stern was a headstrong advocate for the expansion and development of the Milwaukee Art Center’s collection. She established a museum fund, the Lucia K. Stern Trust, which still exists today, to support acquisitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum. With no direct descendants, most of Stern’s artwork was taken to California after her death by a distant relative and eventually left in a locker in LA. The work was then auctioned off to an antique dealer.
The works exhibited at the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art represent the incredible range of these two artists across their respective long, prolific practices. In a series of sketches from life, the gestural security and the pronounced figurative style of the young Mary Nohl are evident in the well-formed forms. Meanwhile, Lucia Stern shows fearlessness in her ability to compose abstract works in bold forms and scales, as in the case of a long multimedia painting measuring 6 inches wide and 48 inches long. Stern’s most striking and evolved works are the multimedia pieces, which incorporate paper, fabric, mesh, and hand-sewn threads to create large-scale geometric compositions of compelling depth. Meanwhile, Mary Nohl’s illustrations convey her keen sensitivity as an imaginative source with a unique eye for composition and color.
Both Stern and Nohl were limited in their lifetimes by their reputations as eccentric artists who played by their own rules. And indeed, each in their own way embraced the whimsical and the wacky through their art. A sculpture wall in the gallery speaks to this dimension of their practices. Stern’s wooden animals are imaginative and reminiscent of toys, while Nohl’s glazed clay creatures seem like children’s book illustrations brought to life.
As we move further away from the century in which these artists lived and worked in Milwaukee, the scope and history of their practices becomes history—a history largely untold in Stern’s case. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this unique pairing of two of Milwaukee’s most visionary artists of the last century.
Visitors can visit the gallery Thursday through Saturday, 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., or email to arrange a private appointment [email protected].