Lucia Stern, Untitled (Floating figure), n.d. Oil on board.
Two of Wisconsin's most experimental artists
of the 20th century
Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern
January 21 through March 19, 2022
Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art
Portrait Society Gallery is excited to present Mid-Century Mavericks: Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern, an exhibition that unites for the first time two of Wisconsin’s most important historic women artists. The exhibition is presented as a comparison and conversation between artists who shared a devotion to experimentation. There will be no public opening reception but visitors are welcome to visit the gallery from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday or make a private appointment by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The gallery will be open Gallery Night, Friday, January 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. and Gallery Day, Saturday, January 22 from noon to 5 p.m.
Mary Nohl (1914-2001) and Lucia Stern (1895-1987) pursued lifelong art careers. Their courageous range of materials and forms erupted from Modernist influences ranging from Surrealism to Cubism and early abstraction. Both artists were under-recognized during their lives but created significant bodies of work and left behind major legacies.
The exhibition will present a range of work by Lucia Stern, including collage, mixed media constructions, paintings and soft sculpture. Mary Nohl is represented by a large body of ceramics and a series of intimate late drawings in pencil, pen, pastel, and watercolor. All of the work is from the collection of Ric Hartman, a specialist in historic Wisconsin art who operates the online Gallery of Wisconsin Art.
Mary Nohl (1914-2001)
Mary Nohl, who became known as the “Witch of Fox Point” because of her embellished house and concrete sculptures that occupied her yard, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937 and earned an additional education certificate in 1939. After teaching in public schools for several years, she moved in with her parents on the shores of Lake Michigan and opened a commercial pottery studio (1947-1954) on Green Bay Road. Once her parents died and the pottery studio closed, Mary began building the outdoor, concrete sculptures and transforming the interior of the property with sculpture, window treatments, paintings, and mobiles, as well as continuing her practice of making jewelry. She chose to keep her life free of distractions (such as marriage and a family) that would interfere with her love of creating. Contrary to legend, she was not reclusive. Nohl enjoyed playing bridge, pursuing various sports including curling, traveling, and entertaining friends.
The exhibition will include drawings as well as ceramic objects from Nohl’s pottery studio where she produced editions of table-top sized vases, sculptures, and lamp bases to sell commercially. During the last few years of Nohl’s life, as her health was declining, she continued to make small pen drawings, initially created on some of her father’s unused 11 x 8.5 inch letterhead from his law practice. Mary drew every day — both abstract and figurative compositions — and kept the pages neatly organized in groups of 100. She would later revisit the initial sketches, adding colored pencil or watercolor.
After Nohl’s death in 2001, Kohler Foundation, Inc., took on stewardship of her life’s work. In 2005 the Mary Nohl home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was named a Milwaukee County Landmark in 2006. In 2012 the John Michael Kohler Arts Center received the property and the individual artworks from the foundation. While her legacy was secured by her gift of $11 million to support local artists through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation Mary L. Nohl Fund, her most profound impact was the way in which she inspired generations of women artists to persevere against a history of discrimination and insist on their own visibility through creative practice. Mary Nohl’s work is on permanent display at the new Art Preserve, Sheboygan, WI.
Lucia Stern (1895-1987)
Lucia Stern was friends with important artists such as Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, and showed her work at a number of museums. She volunteered for decades at the Milwaukee Art Museum and is credited as one of the first artists in the United States to initiate experiments with non-objective art. She died in 1987 and having no children, her estate went to nieces and nephews. Her enormous body of life work was moved to California and put in a storage locker, severing it from any context where it might be better understood.
About 20 years older than Mary Nohl, Stern’s work shares stylistic affinities. In addition to painting practices, both employed found materials and created sculptures with biomorphic shapes. Both artists also worked out of their homes which they transformed with decades of their own work, fearlessly experimenting with mobiles, wooden and wire sculptures, glass constructions, and fabric objects. As avid travelers, Nohl and Stern found inspiration all over the world. Both artists were members of the Wisconsin Designer Crafts Council. In 1950, Stern told Nohl that her jewelry in the annual show at the Milwaukee Art Center received huge praise. Mary was a board member and was then nominated to be president but declined.
Lucia Stern (Martha Ida Lucia Karker) studied music and literature at the Milwaukee Conservatory (1918-1922), Marquette University (1922-26), and Columbia University in New York (summer course, 1921). She married Erich C. Stern, a Harvard trained Milwaukee lawyer, in 1930. He died in 1969 and Lucia remained in their home on Shepard Avenue until she died at age 92. She served on the board of the Milwaukee Art Museum (then Institute) and became a trustee in 1967. She was a docent and lecturer for 40 years, initiating the “Touch the Great” and “Women in the Arts” lecture series. Stern was also instrumental in the founding of the Haggerty Museum of Art on the Marquette University campus.
Lucia Stern (triangle), circa 1950s. Oil on canvas, framed to 33.5 x 49.5 inches