Edna Martin was an artist, a teacher, a source of inspiration, and an interpreter. Throughout her long life she contributed significantly to the development of textile art, to its revival, and its presence within the public sphere.
Edna Martin was born in Gothenburg on 17 December 1908. She was the daughter of chamberlain Teodor Johansson and his wife Sophie, née Flood. Having completed her studies at Slöjdföreningens skola in Gothenburgnow known as HDK-Valand) she spent the period of 1931–1933 working at Axevalla-Varnemsslöjd as a “textile designer”. At Axevalla-Varnhemsslöjd she not only designed interior decoration textiles for daily use but also more expensive textiles, including rugs for Svenska Amerika Linien’s new vessels and for the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, for example. Her work colleagues included Karna Wedel and Agda Österberg. Her artistic debut occurred in 1931 when she held a solo exhibition of her embroidered work at Röhsska konstslöjdmuseet in Gothenburg (now known as Röhsska museet).
From 1933 onwards Edna Martin was resident in Stockholm. During the 1935–1937 period she was employed at Svenskt Tenn AB and from 1937 until 1951 she worked for Föreningen för Svensk Hemslöjd (hereafter Svensk Hemslöjd) in Stockholm, initially as a designer of functional and interior decoration textiles, followed later by a position as artistic leader. Edna Martin began her extensive production as a reviver of Swedish textile art in Stockholm. The roots of this revival lay in a long historical tradition in which women’s perspectives were significant. She quickly became an influential voice in the revival of functional textiles, which at this time were still referred to as home-made handicrafts. Her productivity can be traced through articles and reports which appeared in Swedish daily press and in trade journals. She gained a lot of attention for the patterns for rugs which she had designed in 1939 in which “the old treasured patterns of folk art were rejigged for modern needs”. That same year she submitted a flossa-rug called Flora Suecia to serve as the main piece of the Swedish Pavilion exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. Two years prior she had submitted work for the World’s Fair in Paris.
Her work at Svensk Hemslöjd developed into a fruitful collaboration with interior designers and the results were presented at exhibitions themed on “How one should live”, namely in a modern, light and functional manner. She, for example, designed a newly built exhibition apartment at Hammarbyhöjden in Stockholm, in collaboration with Riksbyggen and the PUB department store. At this time and for a long time afterwards Edna Martin created interior decoration and functional textiles for Kooperativa Förbundet, Mölnlycke Väfveri AB, Oskarströms Linnefabrik, and Harald Löfberg AB (now HL Hemtextil). Edna Martin’s textiles for Mölnlycke were also used for the clothing industry and in 1943 they were displayed in a much-noted model show. Interior decoration formed a vital theme in Edna Martin’s production. Practical pieces alternated with advice and encouragement aimed at the target female audience. She hoped they would give up the demand for perfection and close copies of patterns and routine embroidered Easter and Christmas tapestries. She believed that these pieces almost represented child’s play in their simplicity and that they would lead to the disappearance of folk art and even of women’s culture. She claimed that historically women’s handicrafts had been freely and intelligently created and emphasised the need to maintain this female legacy. She championed the role of the hand and the brain in textile production over the regimented, machined, one-sided and often cheap foreign output for all kinds of interior decoration. She presented her views in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in 1963 and claimed that when seeking inspiration one had to turn towards “the pioneers of handicrafts in the countryside. Isn’t their output much more convivial, richer, and varied than that created industrially. What matters is producing those items in a new way and adapting them to the needs of our modern milieu”.
Edna Martin had already campaigned for the modernising of school handicrafts in 1946. She felt it was important to inspire children and to awaken their creative instincts. She showed the important role children had to play through the children’s courses she ran through Svensk Hemslöjd. In 1965 she published a book entitled Barnbroderi: en bok till barn, föräldrar och lärare om fritt skapande med nål och tråd. The next year this book was published in Dutch.
Alongside her jobs for various employers Edna Martin also produced her own textile artwork and displayed her efforts at various exhibitions. She worked with embroidery, but clarified carefully that this did not involve embroidery as an art, rather that it was a technique for creating images in a “strongly personal way”.
Edna Martin left Svensk Hemslöjd in 1951 and became the managing director and artistic leader of Föreningen Handarbetets Vänner (HV). At the same time she worked for Textilateljén Licium (now HV Licium) and Sätergläntan instructional enterprise, whilst also, from 1948 onwards, serving as main instructor in applied sewing at Konstfackskolan (now Konstfack, the school of arts, crafts, and design) and from 1957–1969 she was the main instructor in textiles at that school. Edna Martin’s teaching efforts are best described in the opinion of one of her students, Veronica Nygren, who went on to become the first professor in textile art at the same school. She believed that, based on the fundamental view that artistry surpasses everything, Edna Martin encouraged artistic independence.
As managing director of Handarbetets Vänner, Edna Martin introduced collaborative work with artists in 1950 already. In terms of modern Swedish textile art this was an extensive and significant development. Her basic aim was not to create “woven paintings” which were the norm at the time. The point now was, using basic sketches – even sometimes just the draft of an idea – to create new interpretative and visionary free textile art monumental pieces for public spaces. This was not infrequently a complicated and challenging method of working, for which she hired young well-qualified textile artists as weavers. The weavers were given a great amount of freedom with regard to the techniques and materials they used and how they interpreted the sketches. This lengthy and extensive enterprise led to a revival of contemporary Swedish textile art, which now gained a new role within public spaces in town halls, parliament, embassies, hospitals, theatres, banks, churches, national archives, and prisons. Edna Martin has described her role, as interpreter and source of inspiration for these efforts, as a form of transformative art in the service of others.
Following Edna Martin’s resignation from her post as head of HV in 1977 she now had time to devote herself to making her own art. She took her creative inspiration from the Öland countryside. She also studied the freestyle textile creativity of Inca women. In addition she studied imagery as used in the lavish and abundant late-medieval textiles for personal use, for interior decoration, and as horse blankets. An exhibition held at Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm in 1983 revealed her standing as an established artist. She introduced the themes and techniques which she continuously developed into a unique and in many ways magnificent artistry. She created a series of works which she called Schabrak, inspired by the magnificent horse blankets from the middle ages. She produced linen weaves entitled Mandalor and Flaggor. The theme of Mandala, or even Äretecken as it is also known, was intended to embellish a modern magnificent knights’ hall. On the upper side there were black knots of rya serving as a modern representation of historical use of royal ermine tails.
The Thielska Galleriet exhibition was the first of many more, held at the likes of Skövde Konstmuseum in 1988 and at Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde in 1991. In the early 1990s Edna Martin was commissioned by the Nobel foundation to come up with suggestions for a festive use of textiles at Konserthuset to mark the awarding of the Nobel prize. She spent four years working on the project. In 1995 the Nobel fondation rejected her project without covering her expenses for extensive sample weavings. This experience of having what she thought would be her triumphant legacy for posterity rejected was a hard blow for the artist. Edna Martin could nevertheless take some heart in the fact that Föreningen Nationalmusei Vänner accepted the proposal she had presented to the Nobel foundation and even covered the cost of a major sample weaving made for the intended tapestry. In 1999 Edna Martin’s project for the Nobel foundation was displayed at the National museum in Stockholm. That same year she also held an exhibition at Galleri J in Stockholm.
Edna Martin died in May 2003, aged 95. Thanks to her seven-decade long period as an artist, instructor, source of inspiration, and interpreter, she has become one of the most important individuals in terms of the development and revival of modern textile art in Sweden. Edna Martin was awarded an honorary title of professor in 1980. She had already been awarded the Prins Eugen medal in 1971 in recognition of her outstanding artistic efforts.