Carlye Nowakowski grew up in the Bucktown section of Chicago, today an expensive hub but back then a struggling Polish/Puerto Rican neighborhood. Her father was largely absent from her childhood–her parents later divorced–and her mother supported three kids by working in an envelope factory.
After high school, Crisler attended the local branch of the University of Illinois for two years and then married and did clerical work. In the mid-seventies, she and her then-husband moved to Jackson, and she commuted to U-M to finish her BA in art.
After they divorced, she moved to Ann Arbor. In 1980, she married Prescott Crisler, a labor negotiator and the son of Fritz Crisler, the renowned U-M football coach and athletic director. (What was her father-in-law like? “Handsome. Crotchety.”)
Over the years, Crisler has explored multiple styles and media. After working briefly in the U-M graduate theater costume shop, she painted large portraits that depicted the people realistically, but with fanciful costumes and backgrounds. In one, a young woman appears in sea-green tights and a ballet-type frock, with puffy ribbons on her arms and blue hippos behind her.
Customers loved them, but Crisler eventually tired of the physical demands of working with such large canvases. She switched to decorative dolls, which she made of paper clay and metal. She remembers her shock when, at an art fair, a dad tossed her $300 creation to his four-year-old.
Her goal, she says, is to “paint an environment or neighborhood rather than a single place.” Mundane details don’t strike her as mundane. She likes overhead electrical wires, which she calls “sky jewelry.” Business signs interest her; she enjoyed painting Ann Arbor Muffler on Jackson because “there aren’t many neon signs like that one.” She painted the Big City Small World Cafe at the corner of Miller and Spring, but found Knight’s Market across the street too boring. “If they’d only put up some awnings!” she says.