January 21, the Portrait Society contemporary art gallery open Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern: Mid-Century Mavericks. This exhibition brings together two local female artists working in the modern era: Mary Nohl (1914-2001), the once controversial and now beloved Fox Point artist, and the largely unrecognized local artist Lucia Stern (1895- 1987). The gallery presents 75 pieces, mostly from the collection of Ric Hartman, art dealer and specialist in historical art from Wisconsin. The work includes paintings, ceramics, sculptures, mixed media works and sketches – many of which are on public display for the first time in many decades.
Despite producing prolific works, both artists were misunderstood and underappreciated during their lifetime. Mary Nohl is known as a local artist who lived and worked in her home at Fox Point, colorfully transforming the interior and exterior of her home and grounds with whimsical interventions, large concrete sculptures of creatures and figures, painting and embellishments with found objects. like glass and driftwood from the shore of the lake adjacent to his house.
Nohl studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, became an art teacher, then ran a pottery studio before moving in with her parents in their cottage at Fox Point. She practiced her art daily throughout her life and was adept at creating in many mediums beyond sculpture and ceramics, including jewelry forging, drawing and painting. Despite her status today as a revered local artist, during her lifetime she was an outsider in the Fox Point community, proliferating its artistic environment despite pushback and harassment from locals.
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During her lifetime, Mary Nohl exhibited her work only sporadically, in small galleries. Today, the majority of Nohl’s work is held by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and much of it is on rotating display at the Art Preserve in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. His family environment is also being preserved, but remains closed to the public for the time being. 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 large annual financial grants to emerging and established local artists through a jury selection process.
While Marie NohlLucia’s story is the stuff of local legend and contemporary conversation, the life and work of Lucia Stern is largely unknown and has been exposed very little since her death in 1987, although it has been suggested as one of the first practitioners of abstract art in the United States. States. Much like Nohl, Stern worked in his Shephard Avenue home, experimenting with found objects and exhibiting works in and around his home. Unlike Nohl, Lucia Stern fully began her artistic practice in 1935, at the age of forty. Revisiting skills such as hand sewing, which she practiced in her youth, Stern approached her artistic practice as a full-time job, transforming her living room and dining room into a studio and creating a gallery in her basement. -sol, where she would stage works including large fabric banners and mobile wire sculptures. Stern was also a dedicated guide and volunteer at the Milwaukee Art Center (now the museum).
Just as Mary Nohl was inspired by her proximity to Lake Michigan, it could be said that Lucia Stern was influenced by the proximity of modern artworks and her experiences traveling in Europe with her husband, lawyer Erich Stern. Lucia Stern documented her non-objective artistic aesthetic and her thoughts on creation in a 1971 zine titled “Criteria for Modern Art”, which, according to the chief educator emeritus of the Milwaukee Art Museum Barbara Brown LeeStern may have created on a photocopier at the Art Center.
Despite her status as a “housewife” living in Milwaukee, Stern’s artistic practice was avant-garde. She has created artwork in a wide range of mediums including fabric, collage, wood, glass, and lucite. His practice has earned him the respect and admiration of artistic figures such as artists Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Calder. Stern exhibited his work in what would become New York’s Guggenheim. In 1977, the Milwaukee Art Center presented Lucia Stern: a life in design. In 1989, after his death, there was a retrospective of Stern’s work at the Haggerty Museum of Art. During her lifetime, Stern was a wise champion of the expansion and evolution of the Milwaukee Art Center’s collection. She established a museum fund, the Lucia K. Stern Trust, which exists to this day to support acquisitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum. With no direct descendants, after his death the majority of Stern’s artwork was moved to California by a distant relative, and eventually left in a storage locker in Los Angeles. The work was then sold at auction to an antique dealer.
The works exhibited at the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art represent the incredible range of these two artists through their long and fruitful respective practices. In a series of sketches drawn from life, we see the gestural confidence and distinct figurative style of a young Mary Nohl present in the shapely forms. Meanwhile, Lucia Stern demonstrates fearlessness in her ability to compose abstract works in bold shapes and scales, as in the case of a long multimedia painting 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-sewn thread, to create large geometric compositions of fascinating depth. Meanwhile, Mary Nohl’s illustrations convey her distinct sensibilities as an imaginative source, with a unique eye for composition and color.
Both Stern and Nohl were limited in their lives by their reputations as eccentric female artists who played by their own rules. And indeed, in their own way, each has embraced the whimsical and the weird through their art. A wall of sculptures in the gallery testifies to this dimension of their practices. Stern’s wooden beasts are whimsical and reminiscent of toys, while Nohl’s glazed clay creatures resemble children’s book illustrations brought to life.
As we move away from the century in which these artists lived and worked in Milwaukee, the scope and history of their practices becomes historic – a story that, in Stern’s case, is largely untold. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this unique duo of two of Milwaukee’s most visionary artists of the last century.
Visitors are invited to visit the gallery from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, or to make an appointment privately by e-mail [email protected].