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A lifetime of artistry: Meet Milwaukee native William Nolen

Artist William Nolen
Susan Bence
Artist William Nolen in his attic gallery in Milwaukee's Brewers Hill neighborhood.

William Nolen starts nearly every day climbing to the third floor of the Victorian home he shares with his wife of 54 years. It's there, on Garfield Avenue in Milwaukee, is where you’ll find canvas upon canvas and myriad art supplies. He squeezes as much time out of each day to paint.

Nolen creates mostly portraits, capturing people in their natural habitats in richly-colored oil. In some works, the subject seems to be reaching out, creating a connection with the viewer.

Susan Bence
One of Nolen's paintings during his studies at the Layton School of Art found in his studio.

Born in 1939, Nolen didn’t grow up surrounded by art. "I grew up on 9th and Vine which is four or five blocks down on the other side of the expressway," he shares.

Nolen describes his childhood simply: "Family and camaraderie of the neighborhood — it was a good neighborhood. It was mostly Jewish and Black. My father was a butcher, he worked at Patrick Cudahy. My mom was a homemaker."

Somehow during middle school, Nolen got it into his head to become an artist. "I was drawing before that, my mom had stuff I drew in kindergarten, but I seriously thought about art in junior high."

People in the neighborhood noticed his talent. "I used to paint signs at 15 or 16 for a barber shop," he recalls.

Painting by Nolen
Susan Bence
"What's Goin' On" by William Nolen is his interpretation of the COVID pandemic.

After high school, with equal spunk, Nolen enrolled in the Layton School of Art, which operated from 1920 to 1974 in downtown Milwaukee. Layton was considered a top art school in the country.

Nolen was one of two Black art students. "[The other student] got a scholarship to go there; he was from Alabama. It was just me and him," he says.

Nolen studied two years at Layton, but didn't finish because, he says, he needed a job. He headed to Gimbels Department Store at 3rd and Garfield, hoping to get in the graphic department.

"They didn’t have any openings, at least they said they didn’t," Nolen recalls.

But fate stepped in again. "The manager of the display department overheard the conversation and said he had an opening," he says. Nolen dressed Gimbels' windows for five years, until he was drafted into the Army in 1963.

Again, his life took an unexpected turn. "The guy giving assignments asked me, 'What do you like to do?’ and I said, ‘I like art, I’d like to do illustration for the Army that’s what I’m thinkin'.'"

To his amazement, Nolen was directed to train in the dental laboratory, spending most of his two year stint in school, primarily at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas making dentures. His supervisor urged him to stay on. "He said he’d get me a job; I was going to go up the ranks quickly," Nolen shares.

But Nolen could feel the Vietnam War in the air, so he opted to come home to Milwaukee.

Nolen calls himself one of the lucky few who could choose. "I’m thinking about all my brothers that was in the service that didn’t make it back home — one in particular. He and I were friends before we even got drafted. His dad ran the pool hall down on Walnut Street."

Once home, Nolen found the job that would span three decades while doing an errand for his mother. "My mom sent me to the post office with packages. I looked at the bulletin board and they had a job posted on the wall there." It was for a position in the dental lab at the VA hospital, where Nolen’s skills dramatically expanded.

He became an expert at maxillofacial reconstruction. "Constructing eyes, ears, noses. What you do is you build it in wax, and then you make a mold and then you build it in silicon."

Nolen says the unique form of artistry changes lives. He remembers one patient in particular — "She looked in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t have to hide anymore.'"

Nolen retired in 1995. Only then did he go back to the easel. His subjects are people — some he knows, others he has spotted going about life.

annie and in the corner.jpeg
Susan Bence
William Nolen's wife Annie at the opening of his show at Adams Garden Park. The painting to her right is titled "In A Corner."

The painting called In A Corner captures a well-dressed Black man, bottle in hand.

"He’s got money cause he’s got a suit and tie and you see gold cuff links, but he’s still in the same boat with the guy with no money, cause he’s got the bottle and he’s in the corner," Nolen explains.

He says his paintings are inspired by "stuff he sees in life."

Nolen dips into photos he’s taken over the years as inspiration.

His latest work, The Young Patriots, was inspired by grade school children Nolen saw walking down his street.

"I saw all these kids. Where the heck are they going. I grabbed my camera and went with them," he says. It was a few years ago on the anniversary of 9/11. "So they were all going down to the fire station to say a prayer."

Nolen captured a sea of faces of many colors. In the foreground solemn-faced children hold flags. Nolen sees hope in the scene.

Susan Bence
The Young Patriots by William Nolen

"These kids you see — white, Black, Chinese. They all go to this school up here. These kids are learning how to be with other people. These are the people who are going to change stuff around," he says.

Nolen, like many artists, is critical of his own work, but it’s being noticed. Some of his paintings are selling. He has a few commissions in the works; but Nolen says he has no intention of selling some of his pieces.

They tell his story — of a Black man who grew up in Milwaukee — a life infused with creativity.

An exhibition of William Nolen's paintings is currently on display at Adams Garden Park on West Fond du Lac Ave in Milwaukee.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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