Written by Mel Kolstad
As we ascend to the fifth floor of the Marshall Building on our way to Portrait Society Gallery, a wave of relief and normalcy descends – this will be the first time since the pandemic began that I’d visited this delightful space.
If one is going to return to a gallery for an exhibit, it should be this exhibit. Mid-Century Mavericks, featuring selected works of Milwaukee artists Mary Nohl (1914-2001) and Lucia Stern (1895-1987), reunites two artists who paved their own ways and subversely avoided typical roles of their time to focus on creating.
When you walk into the gallery, you’re greeted by Mary Nohl’s ink and pastel drawings of ethereal figures, and a few of her more playful ceramic pieces glazed in buttery yellows (and one lovely graphite-colored fish). One very large (untitled) painting featuring these calming figures centers this grouping. As you continue through that space, more of Ms. Nohl’s drawings find you; turn right, and Lucia Stern’s work takes over.
Likely to most viewers to be the lesser-known of the two artists, it was comforting to see so much of Ms. Stern’s work being shown. I had learned of her when I was a docent at the Museum of Wisconsin Art nearly a decade ago, where the museum displayed a couple of her mesh collages. I was instantly tranfixed by those pieces back then, and it was delightful to witness half of the gallery devoted to her large abstract paintings, mesh collages and, newer to me, her sculptural works. The Portrait Society states that much of this work (now owned by Gallery of Wisconsin Art curator Ric Hartman) had been in a storage locker in California owned by Stern’s nephew, who wasn’t interested in his aunt’s talents. Thankfully, this tale has a happy ending and we’re treated to a brilliant cross-section of her work.
As you enter the third and largest portion of the gallery, you see both artists’ works displayed in an almost homelike setting. One wall is devoted mainly to their sculptural works; Ms. Nohl’s ceramic lamps and figurines play so perfectly alongside Ms. Stern’s simple small wooden sculptures. Further into the largest gallery hangs Stern’s larger, bold abstract paintings alongside more of Nohl’s dreamy ink and pastel pieces – so different in size and style, and yet so at home together in this space.
Mid-Century Mavericks offers a glimpse into the creative worlds of both artists, women who were born a generation apart but shared an affinity for mediums coming into their own during their creative timelines. The Portrait Society’s adept curation will no doubt create new fans of these pioneering women.
Mid-Century Mavericks: Mary Nohl and Lucia Stern is on view through March 19 at Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art, 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 526 (The Marshall Building) in Milwaukee.