Alma Öhrström was an artist from Skåne who became recognised for her naïvistic paintings. She depicted the life of her youth and childhood, both daily life and festive occasions.
Alma Öhrström was born in 1897 in the village of Räng in the Kämpinge bay. Her parents were Lars Nilsson, a carpenter and building contractor, and his wife Anna Nilsson, née Christensson. She was a middle child with an older brother and a younger sister. Alma Öhrström grew up on a small farm on which the farmhouse had a thatched roof and a cobblestone courtyard. The farm owned a couple of acres and they had a cow, a pig, chickens, a dog and cats.
Alma Öhrström dreamed about becoming a fashion designer. In weekly magazines that were read over and over again, she got inspiration from the film stars’ clothes and she sewed clothes for herself and her younger sister. The sisters were inseparable friends throughout their childhood and youth and kept in close contact all their lives. When the bicycle merchant in Trelleborg owed their father money, he wanted to pay in natura. That was how it came to be that Alma Öhrström suddenly owned a bicycle, one of three in the parish. Now she was able to travel around and explore, and add even more pictures to her inner album of memories.
In 1916, Alma Öhrström attended Östra Grevie Folk High School. Two years later, it was time to start her working life and Alma Öhrström acquired a position as a clerk to Gustaf Larsson, the sole policeman in Mölle. She also looked after his home. In 1919, Alma Öhrström married Gustaf Larsson and they had three children. When her husband died in a traffic accident in 1938, Alma Öhrström was left alone with the responsibility for the children and their home. The municipality supported her with 75 kronor a month, and Alma Öhrström received a small wage for taking care of the parish library. Her best income was earnt in the summers. Mölle was a popular holiday resort and like most of those living there all year round, Alma Öhrström and her children moved down into the cellar and rented out their rooms above ground to bathing guests. In 1942, living in the cellar felt less attractive, so she whitewashed the walls and painted the woodstove black.
However, Alma Öhrström was not satisfied with that alone. She had blueing, gold ochre, zinc white and lampblack at home, and using these and black and brown shoe polish as well as some paints that she had purchased, she started painting. The boring cellar door was her first panel, and on it she let a newly painted door open out onto her childhood’s summer landscape. In the summer pasture, the small Nilsson sisters are picking flowers and in the background can be seen their family home.
Alma Öhrström’s friends praised her for the painting and most effusive was the principal of Högre Folkskolan, Axel Öhrström, a widower. She had gotten to know him through the parish library and in 1944 they married. In 1955, Alma Öhrström won a competition announced by the magazine Idun. It was to knit and colour-design a cardigan and the jury fell for her beautiful colours. This spurred her to continue with her paintings, encouraged by her husband. In a newspaper interview, she recounted that she became “extremely happy” in 1959 when she sold a picture to the wife of a high state official for 125 kronor. This picture is hanging nowadays in the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
Only when her husband had died in 1961 did she become a fulltime artist. Alma Öhrström accompanied her daughter Marianne Cronberg to an adult education course in Höganäs where she had the painter and graphic artist Torsten Hult among others as her teacher. She learned perspective, colour theory and technique but tired after a while. She wanted to continue painting in her own way, the genuinely naïvistic, as she had done on the cellar door, and that was what she did. Despite the courses, she saw herself as an autodidact. With her paintings, she wanted to tell her children and grandchildren what life had been like when she was growing up at the beginning of the 1900s.
Alma Öhrström made her debut in 1961 at the summer exhibition Kullakonst and was noticed immediately. Two years later, she met with a “raging success” with a separate exhibition at Lilla Paviljongen in Stockholm, where the gallery owner called her “a painter from the heart”. That Astrid Lindgren bought one of the pictures certainly contributed to her success and when Hasse Ekman bought four works the year after she became instantly popular, not only among the celebrities of that time but also with the general public.
Alma Öhrström took her motifs from Räng, Kämpinge or Mölle. She painted in oils and every picture told a story, perhaps a wedding or a funeral, women mangling, children playing or animals in the yard of a half-timbered house. One critic called her a storyteller and that was how she wanted to paint. She wanted to tell the story of her childhood and her youth, how simple life seemed then, how calm and peaceful things were for the most part.
In almost all her interiors, there are rag rugs as well as tapestries with words of wisdom. The houses are most often rows of half-timbered houses and the title of her art book Trasmattor, Bonader och Längor. Ur Alma Öhrströms minnesalbum, published by Karin Österling in 1985, communicates what was important to her. The book is full of Alma Öhrström’s paintings and she comments on them herself. She continued exhibiting her pictures, in among other places Höganäs, and participated in the Skåne art association’s autumn salons in Lund and Malmö, the Helsingborg art association’s spring exhibitions in 1964–1967 and also a few times in the Liljevalchs konsthall’s Stockholm salons.
In 1978, Alma Öhrström had a major retrospective exhibition at the Vikingsbergs Konstmuseum in Helsingborg. No paintings were on sale, but the exhibition was to be one of the most visited in the history of the museum. She was recognised as one of the finest naïvists in the country and was represented in the travelling exhibition of naïve art abroad. When her art was presented at the Centre Culturel Suédois in Paris, it awoke great attention. When the Skåne local folk culture association celebrated its fiftieth jubilee, she received the Lengertz culture prize from the hand of King Carl XVI Gustaf.
In two programmes produced in 1984 for SVT2, Alma Öhrström told Lasse Holmqvist about her life and her paintings. She participated in about ninety exhibitions, the final one arranged by Konstfrämjandet in Gothenburg in 1987. She was then 89 years old and attended herself. She had been afflicted by cataracts that prevented her from seeing colours clearly but she kept on painting up until the last. She was represented in a retrospective exhibition in 2009 together with her daughter, the artist Marianne Cronberg, at Sjöbo art association.
Alma Öhrström died on 21 May 1987 at 89 years of age. Her ashes rest in Brunnby Cemetery.