Not a Witch

It was so hard to imagine that neighborhood kids used to consider Mary Nohl a scary witch. Here we were, arriving at her home unannounced. She threw open her door, greeted us with a huge smile and beckoned us in like old friends.


Mary (age 86 at the time of our visit) told us the kids had been afraid of her because she was different. Her live-in aid, Vicky, who had once been one of those neighborhood kids confirmed this and admitted she too had thought Mary and her wildly decorated house were creepy. She had kept a wide berth. Others, though, had taunted Mary and repeatedly vandalized her yard art. Mary told us this with a sense of humor, but I’m sure the neighborhood disdain for her was painful.

We didn’t know what to expect as we wound our way along the shore of Lake Michigan through her oh-so-ordinary suburban neighborhood in Fox Point, Wisconsin. Every lawn was manicured to a fare-thee-well. The whole neighborhood was so meticulous, and clean. No rusty cars, no junk on porches and not one whiff of creativity. We couldn’t imagine we’d gotten the address right. We couldn’t imagine Mary’s extravagant home environment could fit in here. Ah, well, that was just the point! Mary Nohl had never had one ounce of interest in fitting in.

We rounded the bend and here was Mary Nohl’s home:


A simple suburban home utterly transformed.

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A detail of the cat door:


Mary’s lawyer father had introduced her to cement at the age of 12. Together they constructed the driveway gateposts. After her dad’s death Mary added heads on top of the posts. “My father would roll over in his grave if he saw what I’ve done”, she said, referring not just to the augmented driveway posts but to the lawn populated with Easter Island-esque figures.

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Of course the lawn couldn’t be mowed. Shouldn’t be mowed. Wouldn’t be mowed! And as anyone knows who is familiar with American suburbs, this is grounds for serious resentment. But this was of no concern to Mary.

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I had seen pictures ahead of time of the concrete lawn figures, but the inside of Mary’s house was such a surprise. Every bit of surface had been embellished.

The blue and turquoise doors were covered with  bas relief carvings and bolted with mechanisms which Mary had conceived of and executed with characteristic Yankee ingenuity.

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The walls, the floors, and even the carpets were sponged and splattered with red paint.  IMG_3565  wisconsin060

From the ceiling of another room dangled row upon row of tractor feed paper edges which brushed against the forehead if you were as tall as Mary. . Remember how we used to feed accordion folded paper into our printers in the 1980’s? Remember how the edges of that paper were those pesky endless strips that you used to have to pluck off the edges of the page before you sent your document to its final destination, like your boss’s desk? Well everyone, EXCEPT Mary Nohl just threw those strips away. For her they were  a free raw material, not to be wasted but to be put to good use.

Mary’s sun porch was hung with ribbons. It seems she had never thrown out a ribbon in her 86 years of gift unwrapping.


Mary who stayed a single woman her whole life (and who was quite content about that) had been encouraged by her father to attend college. Though Mary Nohl’s home environment is commonly considered “Outsider Art”, she in fact received an art school education at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1920’s. Though unusually adept (for a woman in her era) at running and repairing power tools, Mary was encouraged to pursue a more traditional employment route than the work in industrial design that she had originally envisioned for herself.  She tried a stint of teaching art in the Baltimore public schools but became discouraged by the limitations imposed on her and her students by the system. Mary decided to return home to Wisconsin, to be near family and friends where she set up a little ceramics business (again encouraged by her father).

Mary led us down to her basement which was filled floor to ceiling with the remains of her production. Though delightful to my eye, they were not big sellers, and so Mary went on to other projects.


Mary  tried her hand at  jewelry making, glass fusing,  and painting.

Around 1960, with the loss of her brother, followed by her father and soon after, the move of her mother into a nursing home, Mary was left to live alone for the first time in her childhood home. She now saw the world around her as her palette. She looked around her home and set to work making it truly her own.


Mary Nohl died shortly after our visit to her home. I feel so lucky to had met this wonderful woman who summed up her guiding principle this way: ” Being conventional is worse than all other sins.”

Happily, Mary gifted her property to Wisconsin’s Kohler Foundation which has built an internationally recognized reputation for championing and preserving outsider art environments. Mary Nohl’s home is currently being restored and will open to public at a future date.



Not Garbage!

It’s safe to say that Forevertron (last post) will be around for a long, long while with its 300 tons of iron and steel–who on earth would want to dismantle that? Likewise Fred Smith’s Concrete Park, the Dickeyville Grotto and the Wegner Grotto are not only built in concrete they all both protected sites (more on that later), now iconic parts of the Wisconsin landscape.

But as is the case with many outsider art sites, two I visited were less securely bound to this earth and sadly no longer exist.

One of these was Tony’s Fan Fair,


tucked quietly away in Anton Flatoff‘s  yard in the town of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Tony started this project in the 70’s with one fan he rescued from the trash heap from the hotel where he worked. Gradually, over the next decade or two he added more and more discarded fans, around 80 in all. When we arrived at his home we were greeted by his lovely wife, Elaine, and middle-aged daughter, who informed us that Tony was home, but very ill, and we would sadly not be able to meet him. They encouraged us to poke around the yard, assuring us that Tony loved admirers.


Flying about  the fantastic Fan Fair, were several of Tony’s airplanes:IMG_3603


“When you’re done with the Fan Fair, do come in”, Elaine urged us, and so we did. After showing off Tony’s indoor work (a flotilla of beer can ships and more planes), Elaine asked us shyly if we had any interest in HER hobby.


YES! OF COURSE!, so she led us to the back of the house and flung open the door to a room jam-packed with dolls.



Elaine explained that they were her “children”. By calling them her children, Elaine was clearly signifying that they were more than just a collection. Elaine had been one of 15 (!) children herself, and growing up she had always dreamed of having a doll. Her family was too poor to buy one for her. One day shortly after she and Tony were married  elaine spotted a naked , dirty doll on the roadside which had been put out for the trash. She took it home, cleaned it up and sewed it an outfit. The next doll she bought at a yard sale with a spare quarter. And on it went. She showed us how she lovingly cared for them, , sewing clothing for each.  And then, impishly, Elaine asked if we wanted to see her most special dolls, her “mixed up” dolls, she called them. You know we said yes! And up came the skirts of a few of the gals to reveal little male genitalia. “They came like that from the factory”, she marveled. Well, it made our day. I wonder, wonder, wonder what happened to all of Elaine’s dolls, and Tony’s oeuvre–all I see on the web when I look up Tony’s Fan Fair is “non-extant”.  Sad!

The raucous yard art which both delighted and disgruntled Paul Hefti‘s neighbors in La Crosse has also disappeared. His property, once a beautiful example of the  very human impulse to create has been restored to a state of ordinariness. Sigh. So I will treasure these images I have  and share with you what got us to slam on our breaks as we were moseying through La Crosse on our way to visit Dobberstein Grotto (earlier post) in neighboring St Joseph.


Strewn across an expansive yard long was Mr. Hefti’s impressive collection of reclaimed and  reformatted detritus from our plastic, disposable world.

Here’s a couple screech-on-the-brakes pictures:




Paul, who lived to be a hundred, worked for 45 years at the La Cross Paper and Box Company. According to his obituary he was a “gifted musician who played piano, accordion, drums, the zither and the mouth organ, [and ]  was a leader of a one liter pop bottle band.” He rode a bicycle his whole life , which, like his yard,  he decorated. He enjoyed the attention that his decorations brought him. I could easily feel his friendliness and warmth sprinkled throughout the site:





I doubt there was any non-perishable trash that Mr. Hefti couldn’t have found a use for.


Adieu, Paul Hefti, you funny, nice man!




Back to Wisconsin! I took a little interlude from the series of postings I’m doing documenting a road trip I took several years ago to see Wisconsin’s many built environments, to write a post about my much more recent trip to Newfoundland. So if you’re coming in cold to the Wisconsin postings, you may want to read the introduction to this series here.

If the Dickeyville Grotto is the grand daddy of Wisconsin’s built environments, and Fred Smith’s Concrete park is the most famous of the Wisconsin outsider sites, then, Dr. Evermor’s Fovertron wins the contest as the most ambitious.  According to Wikipedia,  Forevertron is ” the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing 50 ft. (15,2 m.) high and 120 ft. (36,5 m.) wide, and weighing 300 tons.”


All I knew before my visit to Forevertron was that its maker, the engineer, self-taught artist and back-to-the-future historian, Dr. Evermor, was building a launchpad and spaceship to launch himself into outer space. And I knew it was in North Freedom, Wisconsin, a speck on the map and in the middle of nowhere. It seemed an unlikely spot for such a creation, but by the time I arrived in North Freedom I’d gotten used to the idea that whackiness is spread pretty evenly across this agrarian state.  To find Forevertron, which has no address, we had been told to cross the street from the (defunct) Badger Ammunition plant and look for Delaney’s Surplus. Delaney’s was easy enough to find, but it was so nondescript I wondered if we had misunderstood the directions.   My traveling companion and I poked around the back of the long, dreary sheet metal building of Delaney’s and stepped lightly across what looked initially like an abandoned dump. There was no one around which always sets me to worrying about junkyard dogs. Then suddenly-POW! Fovertron loomed up in front of us with its soaring towers replete with rococo ornamentation, throbbing with complexity.



No longer thinking about dogs, now I started worrying about the enigmatic Dr. Evermor. Would he be a raving lunatic? Were we trespassing?  So when I spotted a little trailer at one end of the site, I screwed up my courage to knock on the door, hoping to procure permission to roam about. “Yes?” I heard from behind the door. “Come in.” And here was Dr. Evermor himself–I needn’t have worried. “Welcome to Forevertron!”


When Dr. Evermor learned we had come all the way from Boston he insisted on giving us a  personal tour. He gleefully pointed out the “Overlord Master Control Tower” (the similarity to the Houston control towers was duly noted) and the “Celestial Listening Ear” (for picking up sounds and signs of life in outer space) and the Graviton (for removing water from the time/space traveler’s body prior to launch–all essential components of the Forevertron that would eventually blast Dr. Evermor himself into outer space. He would be seated inside the glass orb surrounded by copper that sits at the pinnacle of the Forevertron.  Dr. Evermor, who plans to power his flight with electromagnetic energy, has garnered huge inspiration from his hero, Nikola  Tesla.


Everything on site is made from a most astounding array of salvaged material plucked from decaying industrial sites by Dr Evermor himself, from the period of his life when he was known by his given name, Tom Every. Tom Every began his very ambitious and specialized demolition and salvage career when he was a boy.  His junk pile  had already achieved the level of a “public nuisance” by the time he was 17. When Tom Every was reincarnated into Dr. Evermor in 1983 he sold his half of the salvage business to his partner, Delaney, and negotiated the use of the adjoining property for his new passion. Embedded within the structures of Forevertron, are such artifacts as the decontamination chamber from Apollo 11 (I saw it with my own eyes), lightning rods, transformers, and bipolar dynamos made by–hold it, hold it! Thomas Edison himself! (You better click on that link to see what a bipolar dynamo is). This is true, by the way, these dynamos were deaccessioned by the Henry Ford Museum, and Tom Every, ever on the look out for beautiful obsolescence, scooped them up for re-use.

You’d think fabricating Forevertron would be a full time pursuit, but apparently, Dr. Evermor, has ever more time and energy on his hands which he has used to fill the surrounding acreage with a veritable garden of Eden of scrap metal animals, made primarily with tools and musical instruments.

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Note the chair in the photo below to give you a feeling for the size of this insect.


It seemed our tour was winding down, but clearly Dr. Evermor was not ready to let us go.  “Come with me for dinner”, he  insisted,  and he hopped in our car and directed us to pick up his wife,  the most agreeable Lady Eleanor, to accompany us at the pub.  Over bratwurst (favorite Wisconsin dish, I think)  Dr. Evermor regaled us with his hopes and aspirations which included the take-over of the neighboring Badger ammunition plant to become a vast park and museum. He and  Lady Eleanor agreed the government should give it to him, especially as he would do all the demolition for free. (I see on Wikipedia that has not come to pass, alas). But of course the greatest aspiration was boarding his “soul transformation device” for the ultimate of journeys, at which point everyone will agree that the town of North Freedom was aptly named.



Concrete–it’s a beautiful thing!

Arguably, the most renowned of all Wisconsin outsider art built environments is Fred Smith’s Concrete Park. I first learned about this site when I was in grad school at Cranbrook Academy of Art where I studied under the early champion of outsider art, Michael Hall. When I saw the images of the Concrete park I knew right away I need to make a pilgrimage and so Wisconsin went on my bucket list. And there it stayed for about 15 years until I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical with travel funds by my employer, Concord Academy. Armed with the invaluable resource of Lisa Stone and Jim Zani’s book, “Sacred Spaces and Other Places” I mapped out a route that criss-crossed Wisconsin. I was determined to visit every outsider art environment in the state.  I assumed that October would be a lovely time to visit Wisconsin. After all, that’s the best time to visit New England and Wisconsin is at about the same latitude, right?  Well, it turned out to be a miserable time, at least that year, weather-wise, to visit Wisconsin. It was cold, dark, and drizzly just about every day. It was so dark I had to stop at a drugstore to restock my film supply (yup–this was a pre-digital trip. You will excuse the images that you’ll see in this post which are scanned from slides and so not as sharp as the originals) to buy low light ektachrome. Nothing could dampen my spirits, though,  as I drove up to Phillips in the north woods of the state to finally get to see the Concrete Park in person.




Fred Smith, born in 1886 of German immigrant parents began his working life as a teen lumberjack. Later,to supplement his lumberjack income, Smith grew ginseng (surprising thing for the early 1900’s, no?) and Christmas trees for sale. He also built and operated a popular roadside watering hole, The Rock Garden Tavern. The Tavern provided the first real outlet for Smith’s creative impulses.  Providing the nightly entertainment at the tavern, Smith fiddled on his homemade fiddle, sang,  and danced with sleigh bells strapped onto his legs.

In 1949, at the age of 62 Smith quit lumberjacking, ostensibly due to arthritis. Arthritis or not, he threw himself into the making of his Wisconsin Concrete Park (his title). Though disdainful of the modern era of car travel (too much rushing around, thought Smith) , Smith realized the benefit of siting his roadside attraction alongside the highway. Smith clearly loved the attention that his ambitious creation brought to him.

IMG_3423Portrait of Fred Smith. Photo credit: Robert Amft. (Amft was an early admirer of Fred Smith’s work. He visited Smith often in the 1950’s and 60’s and photographed the artist and the site extensively. He even introduced Smith to the work of other self-taught artists.)

Smith worked obsessively on his sculptures, ultimately jeopardizing his marriage and sacrificing his family life.  He filled his 120 acre property with an astonishing number of figures–over 200 pieces, which he embellished with colored bottles embedded into the wet concrete. Smith liked using the bottles both for their reflective quality and like the other recycled material he incorporated, the fact that he “could get them for nothing”.

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When Fred Smith first started his work on the Concrete park, he thought of his sculptures as commemorative pieces. He set to work sculpting historical and mythical figures he admired  including Sacajawea (just one of several Native American figures he sculpted), the Chinese statesman, Sun Yat-sen (a little random, eh?) , Abraham Lincoln,  Kit Carson, and a Paul Bunyan who bears a great resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt.



Besides these commemorative works Smith paid homage to his fellow lumberjacks, farmers, and plain old common folk.



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For good measure Fred Smith scattered several deer and moose, native to the Wisconsin north woods,  throughout the property.




Sadly, after Fred Smith finished sculpting the last of his Clydesdale horses for his ambitious  Budweiser beer tableau he suffered a stroke which ended his creative output.



Fred Smith described his Concrete Park, “a gift for all American people everywhere. They need something like this. ”  Couldn’t agree more!