December 2020 Vol. 1, No.8
The Vulnerable Empathy of Ilse Schreiber Noll
Anything can ignite the muses. Whatever inflames passions and emotions can be channeled into art, from the sacred to the profane, from the greatest beauty to the worst dystopia.
Art reflects the world view, feelings and mentality of the artist. There are no rules or boundaries. Ilse Schreiber Noll chose to express her personal outrage through visual art. She takes up socio-political and environmental causes and speaks out in her own way. She defines herself as a mixed-media artist that merges printmaking and paintings with book making, often with particular topical thematic. For her, art essentially becomes a path to personal liberation through societal liberation.
Ilse Schreiber Noll is a German–American immigrant. To try understand her intrinsic motivators, we must confront history. She was born in the 1950s with the German post-WWII baby-boomer generation, during the time when vanquished Germany was rebuilding from the ruinous war. Germany was still de-Nazifying, and grappling with the devastation caused by the fascist dictatorship. The new generation was born into a fledgling democracy with a new Constitution based on the US model. This generation grew up with elders who lived through the Nazi era, some as complicit believers. These German kids came into adulthood carrying the harsh collective guilt of being German, with the shocking knowledge that their parents’ generation had committed one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind. They would carry the burden of guilt for the destruction of the European Jewry, for two world wars and for worldwide devastation. The Zeitgeist of this generation was as much a confrontation with the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, and the war, as forging a commitment never again to allow it repeat. Part of coping with that reality was the emergence of the 1960’s protest movement. They embraced strong anti-war sentiments, often looking to America for cultural, social and political inspiration. Americans had many role models in the arts and literature,
in music and politics. Pete Seeger had encouraged young people to sing out against injustice, as Woody Guthrie did before him. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were singing for peace and equality. German baby-boomers embraced them, but had a scarcity of role models in their own language. They looked for inspiration to anti-fascists like singer/songwriter Franz Josef Degenhardt and the exiled poet/playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had profound influence on the German post-war generation. Among the admirers of Brecht was a young, sensitive woman, coming of age in a time when all of these realities weighed so heavy on young people’s psyche, consciously or subconsciously. All of these forces impressed the Weltanschauung of the German post-war generation. No wonder that the visual art of the post-war period, often forged by previously banned artists, had dark, almost brooding elements, partly carried over from the German expressionism of the 1920s.
Originally from Bad Arolsen, a small town in northern Hesse, Germany, Ilse Schreiber Noll now resides in Croton-on Hudson, New York. In Germany, she pursued a career in physical therapy. She did not start her studies in art until she enrolled in the College of New Rochelle and subsequently at the State University of New York in Purchase, where she took a Masters in Fine Art in Printmaking and Book Art. At S.U.N.Y. she studied with the famed Italian-Uruguayan woodcut printmaker and Guggenheim Fellow Antonio Frasconi.
“I feel that I have a responsibility to comment about what is going on in the world. I can’t close my eyes to that. It automatically goes into my work. Every grief I feel, everything that moves me ends up in my art.” That can be her feelings about environmental destruction, war, racial injustice and hunger. She has made art against Apartheid in South Africa, against the internment of Central American immigrants on the US-Mexico border, and on the separation of families. She took on the inhumanity of caging migrant children in our current time.
Her significant specialty is creating powerful artistic books, combining the literary with the visual to tell a sequential story. She does not write her own scripts, but has partnered with prestigious thinkers and poets like the Nobel Prize in Literature winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz Lozano. She also collaborated with the Russian-American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, and the South African activist, educator, journalist and poet Dennis Brutus. She was inspired by the poetry of the famed African American poet Langston Hughes, whose poetry she incorporated into her art. She also partnered on six books with the American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Galway Mills Kinnell.
"Some people think that art does not make a difference, but it is just one little brick in the wall of change."
After her studies with Frasconi, she discovered the German woodcut artist Helmut Andreas Paul Grieshaber, who helped her move toward looser forms of expression. “I want to make people aware of certain facts. It’s not a mission. It is hope for a change. Some people think that art does not make a difference, but it is just one little brick in the wall of change. I used to be representational in my artist expression. Now, I am more symbolic to get attention to the topic, prefering loose, abstract expression, which gives me total freedom. I was exhausted from the precision of printmaking and grew out of that tense style, inspired by the looseness and seeming carelessness of Jackson Pollack. I try to bring pleasant elements into my art, to bring balance against the heavy thematic, to make it non-confrontational. My hope is that people may see my art and think.”
Her passion for Brecht was realized when she met the British born theater playwright, critic, singer, editor Eric Bentley. He was Brecht’s friend and translator and one of the preeminent experts on the poet and playwright. He pulled Schreiber Noll into various projects, including designing stage sets, making woodcuts, posters and illustrating books related to Brecht’s work.
It would be simplistic to neatly mislabel Schreiber Noll’s art solely as German Expressionism, because it undeniably has some elements of that style. A better description would be “Empathetic Art.” The artist transfers her personal vulnerabilities and sensitivities, the issues that affect her. While the work may be abstract, the thought and idea is often revealed in the titles. It’s topical art for a better world. “I can’t do a piece without a topic. I no longer care if people understand it or get it, or like it. My art does not have to be perceived as good. It’s my way to express when I am upset, when something hurts me. I channel my own anger, especially when I feel helpless about a situation that troubles me inside. It’s a release, a form of self-expression. Art lets me survive many situations. I give a voice to myself.”
She has very important things to say!
Writer. Photographer. Producer.
Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.