Over a period of 50 years, the artist Mary Nohl transformed her yard as well as the interior and exterior of her cottage into an environment that stands in conversation with the surrounding land, lake, and her childhood memories. Almost immediately after the first cement sculptures materialized in the 1960s, she became known as “The Witch.” Elaborate myths grew from her industrious acreage. Stories of murder, mayhem, and longing were broadly considered fact by a cross-section of the local populous. Nohl worked alone, from her home. Lacking a husband and prescribed social role, she was a very suspicious character, indeed.
Over four decades, Mary Nohl kept making and building. Stories took hold, about how she’d murdered her family and buried them under the sculptures, or how her husband had been lost in the lake and the sculptures were to beckon him home. All the stories inserted the “missing” husband and children. The cottage became a frequent late-night stop for teens drawn to the counterculture strangeness of the place. Others came and left notes of gratitude in her mailbox.
Nohl died in 2001. She left nearly $10 million dollars (her attorney father had invested well) to a foundation to award yearly fellowships to individual artists in Milwaukee and nearby counties. She donated her house and all of its contents to the Kohler Foundation, which preserves art environments. Thirteen years later, however, little has been done to secure the site. The Kohler ran into opposition from Nohl’s wealthy neighbors — they objected to even the most restricted use of the house as a museum or study center. The building fell into disrepair and with each new winter has become increasingly fragile, weathered, marooned in uncertainty. Then, in March of this year, the property’s current owner, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, issued a press release stating that it had given up preservation efforts and will move the house and yard sculptures to Sheboygan County, where it is located. The center will sell the land to fund the move.
Sad that the foundation charged with preserving the house has just given up.