"Martha's Sheep Flock to Town"
(Translated by Martha Nilsson Edelheit)
Piteå: Martha Nilsson Edelheit has been an established artist for half a century, but has never before shown in Norbotten. Nevertheless, she has a connection to Piteå through her husband Sam Nilsson and it isnt the first time she is visiting here. But this time she has brought great quantities of sheep with her. These are the result of an art process that began when she moved from New York to Sweden 15 years ago.
In New York, Martha Ross Edelheit, as she was known then, lived in Soho. She showed me a brochure of her art that she made after her husband and many others close to her had died. There are anguished, deeply sad portraits of people and figure studies, done just before she moved to Sweden. Suffering images in grey tones or muted colors depicted in a mixed media of painting and string which she still uses in various works. Although now the prevailing atmosphere is wonderful. "My life was sheer hell then. When I walked out the door I fell over hordes of homeless people. This started in the USA during Ronald Reagans time when he destroyed the infrastructure, so for me he wasnt good," said Martha Nlsson Edelheit.
Switching to animals
"It was during this period that I began to do sculpture with string or wire as a base. Today it is not people that I paint and sculpt, but mainly sheep and sometimes a cow."
"When I came to Sweden my whole life changed for the better, I was happy and cheerful. Coming from a big city I enjoy the countryside and the things there. But, to my consternation, I suddenly found myself in a no-man's-land wandering around my studio without knowing what to do. This had never happened to me before."
Advice from Rubens
During one of these walks, she remembered the European baroque painter Rubens saying to another artist, "paint whats in front of your nose." "I had sheep around me everywhere, so I began to paint them. I began by sitting out in the fields with them but it was hopeless. Sheep move around too much to work with, so I combined sketches from direct observation with photographs and then painted them in the studio."
First she painted small portraits in acrylics on archival paper, a technique similar to watercolor but different because the painted sheep have a special texture as this paper gets wrinkled when wet.
"I love this technique with so much happening over time, but after the first year when the sheep ate all my vegetable garden I asked for a high fence. Hasse, the owner of the sheep, built one for me and thats why I have lots of chicken wire that I use in my art work," said Martha Nilsson Edelheit.
From Ink to Wireweb
Her sheep paintings are very colorful and expressive, apart from the size and technique! Some paintings are finished with raw wire or chicken-wire sculpture that make freestanding sheep wire shadows mixed with wooly sheep personas. The sculptures are made of clay built over a wire armature. Some of the pictures are ink with funny titles, others are ink and watercolor on laminated rice paper, which gives them a glassy surface.
One large painting is made with thin layers of acrylic on linen which gives it a softer and more refined look than the other works that dominate the exhibition.
Martha Nilsson Edelheit has, in fact, developed a technique, using chicken wire as a skeleton under the layers of papier-mâché and paint, that is probably only done by her. "The artist Bengt Lindström once told me that his son made sculpture with papier-mâché, and I thought I would try it. But I made a flat surface and then used it like a painting canvas," said Martha Nilsson Edelheit, showing me the special structure of painting the sheep on chicken-wire.
She willingly gives the final image of the sheep a raw feeling, but at the same time the sheep remain friendly."I wait till the painting tells me its finished, but its the process, from the idea till that moment, thats the fun, the daily work. Fine, straight cut edges and borders that are sharp dont worry me, I want my hand in what I make."
Future Martha-projects are people portrait books, like the ones with sheep as the motif. She also plans many more big sheep paintings so big that they will be natural size.
"Maybe Ill try big people portraits also but the last year has been a little tough so I haven't been able to do all that I planned. If I make portraits of people it should be of people that I know. They should be around me every day, like the sheep.
Facts about Martha Nilsson Edelheit
Born and grew up in New York.
Living in Sweden since 1993.
Lives in an old, farmer's country house in Svartsjölandet, Ekerö Kommun, Stockholm County.
She has had solo exhibitions since 1960 in, among other places, New York, Helsinki, Vienna, and Stockholm.
She met her husband in 1957 in Umeå and they both fell in love. They waited 35 years before they moved together and married.