The Witch’s House
“Being conventional is worse than all other sins.” – Mary Nohl, the Witch
Whenever I visit my folks in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a North Shore suburb of Milwaukee, I make a point of walking down to the lake to go by the house at 7328 Beach Drive, popularly known as the “Witch’s House.” It stands behind a barb wire fence, surrounded by a striking collection of concrete and wood sculptures, some of them made from driftwood taken right off the beach.
It often feels strangely quiet down there. The vast expanse of nearby lake amplifies the pervading sense of emptiness on the clear winter days on which I often go to see it. The houses seem to pull back a little behind their big lawns, and people seem far off somehow, perhaps in part because the Witch’s House is something of an attraction, and nearby residents may prefer to do without the sightseers.
The sculptures themselves, saddled as they are with the witch association, may seem grotesque at first glance, like goblins or dragons from a children’s book. But, as is often the case with eccentric-looking characters, if you spend a little time with them, their personalities show through. Sure, some of them are a little weird, like the guy with the hat holding the big fish in his lap, but you would search the entire yard in vain for the slightest hint of malice or fear.
Take this dinosaur-looking guy, for example – any hint of danger is immediately eased by his affectionate playmate (click to enlarge).
When I lived in Fox Point, the story in circulation was that the witch’s husband was a merchant sailor on the Great Lakes, until his ship went down with all hands on board during a big storm. The witch, the story goes, was driven mad by grief.
The truth is more prosaic. In reality, Mary Nohl, our eponymous witch, was a reclusive artist of independent means, and if her art was eccentric, her biography is unremarkable in contrast.
Born in 1914 to a prosperous lawyer and an aspiring singer, Mary was already keeping watch for interesting cast-off junk she could play with by the age of five. She grew up in this very house, where she played with friends and built exotic forts, until she graduated and left home for art school in Chicago.
In 1936, Mary earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts combined degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. It was there she was trained to work in various media, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage, and it was there she discovered Dadaism and surrealism, which had a marked impact on her style.
She often traveled during those years but preferred not to stray too long. Three weeks was the ideal length of time for a trip, she said.
On one trip to Paris, she observed of Notre Dame cathedral, “If you believed in God it would have been a lovely place to pray.”
She was hired as an art teacher by the Baltimore County Public Schools, but she didn’t take to the work and resigned in 1941, returning to Milwaukee to live with her family. She briefly worked as a teacher at the local North Division High School, but soon gave it up.
For several years she owned and operated a ceramics studio on Green Bay Road, but it became increasingly evident that she enjoyed the work but not the business. She eventually closed the studio.
“Everything is improving at a great rate here.”
In 1960, Mary began to decorate the house that would become the canvas of her greatest work. She started small, but carried on and on, and gradually marked every aspect of the house, from the china and the crystal to the fixtures and the garage.
When her father died in 1961, Mary inherited the house and a lot of money besides, “too much for me ever to think about,” she said. And so, abandoning her efforts to find a fitting career, she began her life’s real work in earnest, working most days for many hours on sculpture, mosaic, or painting. Her primary creative period lasted until 1973, and most of the works now visible around her home date to this period.
Her diaries show her to be solitary but not introspective. She could be difficult to get along with, and sometimes showed herself to have tough bark on her. In 1960, when she learned of the death of her brother Max, with whom she had never gotten along, she noted in her diary, “New sensation to be an only child. I am sure Mom and Dad know it’s best this way.”
“I couldn’t live without all the things that keep washing up on the beach.”
There is something very childlike about Nohl’s work. Her house resembles what might happen if you gave a five-year-old an unlimited supply of crayons, playdough, and time, and let them completely re-do the house.
It is an art without constraint. She made what she liked, what she felt like making. In the resulting jungle of concrete and clay, we find a menagerie of joyous creatures of an archaic style and primitive type.
Mary drew from what was at hand, not just in terms of material, but with respect to images as well. We can detect certain exotic influences in her Easter Island concrete heads. And the superb paneled gable of her garage may suggest ancient Egypt, with its sun boats and Osiris-like reclined figures.
Her creations seem to signify something unknown, like an impressionistic facsimile of ancient ruins, perhaps belonging to a forgotten people devoted to a forgotten mythology. Consider this little monument, which she called her Pompeii.
The natural response to her enigmatic and suggestive work is is to mythologize the collection, to supply a referent for the symbolism so many of her pieces imply. I think this impulse helps accounts for the stories that have been attached to the Witch’s House.
It is striking that her friendly collection of figures have had such a creepy story attached. I gather the name “Witch’s House” is generally intended in a playful light. Not all witches are seen as malevolent, even in Milwaukee.
Still, I can’t help but feel that in the city’s conservative culture, something about Nohl’s eccentricity is in fact regarded as threatening.
In a way, the name has become a self-fulfilling prophesy – the House attracts sightseers, gawkers, and admirers, but also trespassers and vandals. Several of the wooden works that used to stand on the yard have been damaged or destroyed.
When Nohl passed away at the age of 87 in 2001, custody of her menagerie passed to the Kohler Foundation. A caretaker looks after the collection and feeds the dragon, but sadly, the interior of 7328 Beach Drive, and the many works of art it contains, remain inaccessible. Although it is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, I gather that the neighbors do not wish to see the house become a museum, and have fought plans to such an effect.
If this seems a bit miserly, though, it was the culture from which Mary sprung, and she unmistakably belonged to it. She never went far, for long.
I like the place and find most of her sculptures delightful. I like to imagine Mary living a contented and solitary life, surrounded by just the companions she needed and wanted, a cast of muppety monsters that brought people in from miles around, then kept them at arm’s length.
Most of the biographical and historical information in this article was drawn from the wonderful book Mary Nohl Inside & Outside, by Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, published by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation in 2008. It’s a great way to get to know the Witch a bit better, and to see not only the inside of her house, but her luminous paintings as well.
“Pilgramage to ‘witch’s house’ was a rite of passage,” by Jim Stingl. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2007.
All images (C) Barnaby Thieme unless otherwise noted.