Garden of Surprises

9780544272200_hresIn Mary’s Garden
Written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kügler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

During her lifetime, Wisconsin artist Mary Nohl produced pottery, paintings, and jewelry. However, she is most famous for her sculptures: whimsical figures, animal and human, she created from driftwood, stones, and shells and installed in the garden of her Lake Michigan cottage. The world Nohl created for herself delighted some and bewildered others, but she worked for the pleasure of creating and not for profit or critical acclaim.

In Mary’s Garden, Tina and Carson Kügler introduce young children to Nohl’s art – and show the joy of creating. The picture-book biography shows a youthful Mary defying narrow gender roles by studying woodworking, helping her father build a house, and traveling the world as a young woman. The bulk of the narrative, however, focuses on the first sculptures Nohl built from the driftwood, shells, stones, and other objects she found along the lakeshore. Her dogs, Basil and Sassfras, accompany her on these expeditions, helping Nohl locate the treasures that will comprise her creations.

The Küglers’ illustrations continue the narrative’s playful touch – and emphasize Nohl’s lighthearted approach to art. Nohl’s two dogs scamper exuberantly through spreads, pausing to gaze thoughtfully at finished sculptures. Some illustrations are collages: in the spread about Nohl’s travels, the Küglers include postcards, her sketches, jewelry, and a pencil, all of which surrounds a picture of Mary drawing an exotic-looking sculpture. Perhaps the book’s most remarkable illustration is a close-up of the items she will use to create her first sculpture: colored stones, string, a broken comb, a feather, and driftwood. Nohl’s hand holds one slate-grey stone. By showcasing these seemingly insignificant items, The Küglers allow readers to see them as beautiful and alive with potential as Nohl did.

In Mary’s Garden is more than a charming look at Mary Nohl’s life and work. It is an introduction to her creative process and to her joyful approach to life and art.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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