It’s difficult to open a newspaper today without encountering images of refugees on foot or in dangerously overloaded boats. The locations and the wars which set the refugees on their courses are always particular, but there is nothing new about people fleeing their homelands. During the years of World War II, Sweden absorbed Jews and other refugees from Europe, as well as some 20,000 Swedish-speaking Estonians. One of the Estonian emigres to Sweden became a talented designer of mid-century rugs. This is her story.
Born in 1922, Mai Wellner grew up as the eldest daughter in a cosmopolitan household in Estonia between the two wars. Her father, Harald Wellner, was a well-traveled journalist, fluent in Swedish, interested in drama and in new journalistic practices in England and the United States. He was described as a graceful and witty writer who wrote for both Scandinavian and Estonian newspapers. The home Wellner made with his wife Magda, was a place of conversation and culture. It is likely that if Mai was interested in textiles as a young woman, she would have been exposed to Estonia’s rich traditions of embroidery, knitting and card weaving, all of which were used in folk costumes of the so-called “Coastal Swedes,” whose ancestors who had settled in northwest Estonia in earlier centuries. The Wellners themselves were one of these families, a small percent of the population, some of whom were professionals; others were farmers and fishermen.
Normal life In Estonia began to worsen rapidly in the autumn of 1939; the country was in a state of political turmoil. In September and October of that year, the Soviet Union moved on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, requiring that these Baltic states allow the Soviets to maintain military bases there. Several of these bases were built on islands which were home to Swedish-speaking Estonians, and many were forced to move. Political changes happened quickly, with Estonian’s democratic government overturned and Soviet control put in place. The Soviets forced the Baltic governments to resign,“elected” new communist governments with rigged elections, and sent thousands of political undesirables— heads of governments, as well as normal citizens who simply were deemed to have unacceptable social attitudes to Siberia, destroying families and Estonian society in the process. Cultural life and all kinds of organizations and associations were forcibly disbanded.
While the world was transfixed by images of triumphant Nazi troops entering Paris on June 14 1941, the fact that the Soviet Baltic fleet had staged a complete military blockade of Estonia from the sea, and that Soviet troops had invaded on that same day were events largely overlooked. Days later, Soviet troops occupied Lithuania and Latvia as well. With the West allied with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, the actions of the Soviets were not condemned, and the identity of these independent Baltic states was essentially forfeited to these political alliances. But this was only the first wave of political crisis for the country.
The next wave of threats to Estonian nationality came almost immediately from Nazi Germany. In July, 1941, Estonians who had been conscripted into Soviet troops began to desert, joining Estonian forest partisans to fight Russian troops in eastern Estonia, near the Russian border. But Nazi troops were advancing from Latvia in the south, intending to push through Estonia eastward toward Russia and the Leningrad front. At first they were welcomed by many Estonians, perceived as liberators from Soviet occupation. And in fact at first, the Germans cannily stepped aside and let native Estonians wage their fight against the Soviets in eastern Estonia. But by August, German troops resumed their march on the Estonian capital of Tallinn, and there displaced the Soviets. Once in charge, the Nazis ravaged the country for war materiel and supplies, and began an Estonian Holocaust, purging Estonian Jews, Estonian Russians, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners and others.
Despite the steadily deteriorating political situation, the Wellner family stayed in Estonia until 1941, when they fled to Finland, a country whose language was similar to that of Estonia. It would be interesting to know when the Wellners left Estonia and how they got to Finland. It looks as if they may have gotten out before the Soviet blockade of Tallinn in June. In any case, the situation became more precarious just that point for emigres in Finland. Finland declared herself to be (again) at war with the USSR in June 1941, and, the Estonian embassy was required to close its doors, since Estonia was now under Soviet control, and could not be allowed independent representation abroad. Nevertheless, the Estonian emigre community in Finland maintained some independent identity with the occasional art exhibit or concert. When the family resettled itself in Helsinki, Harald Wellner found work writing for a Helsinki daily paper, the Helsingin Sanomat, and he was viewed as a political “activist” in the camp of Estonian refugees. who were mostly of Swedish descent.
Mai entered Helsinki’s Ateneum, in 1942, and studied there for two years. The Ateneum held not only Finland’s national art collection, but also housed its Central School of Industrial Arts as well. Mai certainly saw her study at the Ateneum as developing technical skills for a possible career working in the textile industry. Perhaps she even thought she might be able to return to work in Estonia “after the war.”
In September of 1944, with the Nazi army retreating from Estonia, a provisional Estonian government was rapidly formed. But the Estonian flag only flew for two days.
Flag of Estonia (Unofficial) flag of Estonian Swedes
This moment of freedom was short-lived. Two days later, on September 22, the Red Army again invaded Tallinn, and established a communist government which was to last- not only through the end of WW II – but until the fall of the Soviet Union. Estonia did not regain her independence until February 24,1989. But in 1944, with this second Soviet occupation, nearly all the Estonian Swedes who had not already left the country, scrambled to leave on overloaded ships. Photos of such ships often identified the numbers of Estonians and “Coastal Swedes” these carried. Sweden was the eventual destination of most of the Swedish-speaking Estonians.
It was clear in 1944, if it had not been earlier, that Mai Wellner was not returning to Estonia. It was also clear that she was fortunate not to be a man, since she was exactly of the age to have been conscripted by one occupying country or the other between 1939-1941. One Estonian later recalled, ““The line that separated those born in 1922 and 1923, became a no-man’s land bounded by barbed wire barriers and rows of trenches. That line determined who was to die for Stalin, and who for Greater Germany.” (p 163. quoted by Hillar Tassa, born 1923, in Estonian Life Stories by Rutt Hinrikus).
Wellner and her family fled again, in the fall of 1944, this time to Stockholm. In neutral Sweden, Mai was able to find work in the textile department of the well-known National Kompaniet department store (NK). Despite shortages of material, and war going on around them, Sweden was trying to continue with life as usual. The NK textile department (“textilkammare”) was headed by the formidable textile designer and business-woman, Astrid Sampe. Wellner was employed designing printed textiles for home decorating. The position gave her a introductory exposure to the Swedish textile market and a view of production with industrial textile manufacturers. It put her in contact with other textile artists, among them Viola Gråsten, a Finnish emigre about 10 years older than Mai . Viola had attended the same school in Finland, and had a good deal more textile experience there but she came to Sweden a year later than Mai did. This job for NK was a position Mai took seriously— perhaps more seriously, given all she had seen in these war years, than young Swedish contemporaries who she noted,“came and went.”
In 1946, Wellner joined the Friends of Handcraft (Handarbetets Vänner, in Swedish), a design and weaving collective. She continued to work there for 18 years, until 1964. In speaking of this time, Wellner recalled it with humor, noting that “At this enterprise full of integrity and ideals, the work included all activities from creative work to scrubbing floors during spring cleaning,” but she also expressed appreciation for the opportunity to work with well-respected Swedish designers such as Alfred Munthe, Siri Denkart, and Lennart Rohde. And she certainly knew and probably worked with Edna Martin who was the head of Handarbetets Vänner from 1955-1971.
While at this association (often called simply the “Vänner”), Wellner was able to work on a number of major projects funded by the State Arts Council. These were commissioned for government buildings under a governmental “1-percent-for-art policy” that allowed one percent of construction costs of new public buildings to be appropriated for art in public spaces. The Friends of Handicraft were frequently commissioned to design and weave such projects. Working on projects such as a tapestry for a city council chamber, several church carpets, and hangings for a hospital. she gained experience collaborating with architects and other artists, and working with both clients and manufacturers.
In 1964, Wellner was offered a position as a designer in the Stockholm office of the Märta Måås Fjetterström operation, headquartered in Bastad, Sweden. She designed for MMF until the Stockholm office closed in 1977, designing at least five or six flat-weave (roläkan) rugs produced by MMF weavers. One design is called Slagrutan (“Dowsing”), shown below.
Another of her flat weave rugs is “Carpenter” (“Timmermannen”), perhaps after the pale planks whose ends align carefully but irregularly down the length of the rug. But the lively pink and orange color scheme of this rug also recalls Wellner’s own Estonian folk heritage. It seems very likely that Wellner would have known the traditional costumes of Muhu island, located off the west coast of Estonian and settled by Coastal Swedes. Muhu skirts and particularly knitted stockings evidence a proclivity for pinks and oranges (usually died with vivid aniline dyes) with bands of color. The color-banded knit work is then often overlaid with patterns of birds, flowers and other designs. If these patterns were a conscious precedent, we could note that Wellner has eliminated the decorative folk elements and set up a more modern woven counterpoint of horizontal and vertical elements, but that the vibrant sense of color remains. If she was unfamiliar with Muhu Island arts, her similar and dissimilar use of colored bands seems surprisingly coincidental.
The rugs woven in Sweden by the Märta Måås Fjetterström firm after 1942 have AB MMF
(AB or “antibolaget,” means “company” in Swedish) in the lower left corner and the initials of the designer in the opposite lower right corner. Instead, Wellner’s Timmermannen rug carries a extra initial, V, at its base. Thus the initials across the bottom of this rug are AB MMF V and then MW, the designer’s initials. The extra V indicates that it was woven in Vassa, Finland. Vassa is a city on Finland’s west coast, across the Gulf of Bothnia from Umea, a city well north of Stockholm. Woven in 1973, this seems to have been a time when the costs of handweaving in Sweden had finally risen to the point that the MMF operation was exploring other options for making their famous rugs. Postwar Finland was still depressed enough, yet the standard of Finnish weaving very high that that might have seemed an attractive cost-saving possibility. This was apparently a relatively short-lived experiment. Today it is a point of honor with this company that all rugs are still hand-woven in Sweden.
In 1979, Wellner seized the opportunity to found her own design/weaving studio, called Monkbrun, and to produce a number of important pieces shown and sold at fairs abroad. One of the projects from this period of which she was most proud was a series of gobelin tapestries for the District Court in Katrineholm, produced in 1979. This court was absorbed into a larger district in 2009; the current whereabouts of these tapestries is unknown.
One has the sense that Weller was always grateful to find interesting and satisfying work in Sweden, but that, although she had many friends, she never felt completely Swedish. She loved to travel, calling herself, a “restive traveling spirit,” particularly eager to explore other countries in Europe after the war. When her work was entered in international exhibitions, in England, the US, Norway, and Switzerland, this became another opportunity for travel.
Not surprisingly, Wellner had a strong interest in ethnography, the study of other cultures and their material artifacts. This interest may have been fostered in childhood. Her godparents had moved to Morocco in the 1920s, and remained their until their death. Mai visited them there a number of times. On the occasion of a 1986 Stockholm exhibit, “The land, the City and the desert in Morocco,” Wellner lectured on ethnography, and on her own death, donated her personal collection of Moroccan artifacts to the Museum of Ethnography. These included a range of objects, from clothing and ceramics to rugs. She wrote that a fascination with “Western Islamic and Berber art with its artistic handicraft, its nature and people, has for decades interfered with my peace of mind and been the basis for special projects.”
In 1985, toward the end of her career, Weller published a revealing essay in the magazine Triinu, published for the Estonian women’s community of Toronto. This was a city with a large Estonian immigrant population. Wellner used an image which seems to derive from her Estonian heritage, where national song festivals have always been an important part of the culture. Talking about the way she saw her own work as compared to her Swedish contemporaries’ point of view, Wellner wrote,
“Young people came and went – they all were able, for a shorter or longer period, to accommodate themselves to the demands of the labor market. Their aim was laulupuu (song tree), or uninhibited artistic expression. Thus, the refugee artist was left with the leivapuu (bread tree) by which to earn her living, but which comprised also many “song tree” branches. The desire to advance quickly did not leave young textile artists leisure for discovering possibilities and thus taking advantage of them. Many of them were lost for years to homemaking or to other types of work.”
Looking back, Wellner seems to have been surprisingly grateful for her refugee status, her feeling that she was not able to advance as quickly or change jobs frequently, since staying longer at each job allowed her to grow into new responsibilities, and unexpected or unplanned-for opportunities— in her words to discover many “ ‘song tree’ branches.” In her Triinu essay, Wellner reflected that the course of her career had been rather improbable. As she said, “Such a streak of fortuitous events is most probably rather rare in the life of a refugee artist…”
Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm
Dagensborg Nyheter, 9/10/2004, death notice for Mai Wellner with comments by Susanne Henriques and others
Estonian Textile Artists Association, the Estonian Academy of Arts, obituary for Mai Wellner
http://www.sirp.ee/s1-artiklid/varia/mai-wellner-20-iv-1922-tallinn-3-vi-2004-stockholm accessed 11/15
Estnisk Konst och Kulture :35 ar i Sverige, 1980 show at Kulturehuset Stockholm
http://leht.se/exilkonst/Fakta/Poster/2016/2, review of this show at /3_Estnisk_konst_och_kultur_35_ar_l_Sverige.html,
Foley, Kieran. Muhu knitting patterns at https://knitlab.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/muhu-museum/img_6783/, accessed 11/28/16
https://folkcostume.blogspot.com/2013/12/18th-19th-cent-costume-and-handwork-of.html Blog post on traditional Muhu costumes, accessed 11/27/16
Helsingborgdagbladet, Sept 21, 2004 death notice for Mai Wellner
Henrikus, Ruth, compiler and Tiina Kirss, editor. Estonian Life Stories, Central European University Press, 2009.
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Diplomaatia #64, Dec 2008, Estonian foreign and security policy.
National Museums of World Culture- Museum of Ethnography
http://www.kringla.nu/kringla/objekt;jsessionid=6B708E75F50A5A3B94CC5AE922BC149E?text=Nora&filter=itemType=samling&referens=SMVK-EM/samling/1206386 accessed 12/15
Önnerfors, Elsa Trolle, Domsagohistorik – “Katrineholm Court” (part of the National Heritage Board and the District Town Hall inventory 1996-2007), referenced on Wikipedia under Katrinehoms tingsrätt, accessed 11/30/16
Pajupuu, Kadi. One Hundred years of Estonian textile art/Eesti tekstiilikunst. Estonian Textile Art. 1915-2015, 2015. Online at https://issuu.com/kadipuu/docs/eesti_tekstiilikunst, accessed 12/15 and 11/21/16
Rausig, Sigrid. History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rausig, Sigrid. http://estonianworld.com/life/minority-report-plight-estonias-ethnic-swedes/, accessed 11/28/16
Rootsi Eestlaste Liidu kultuuriarhiiv, https://goo.gl/images/q67406 Estonian culture and photo archives, currently being digitized; not available to the public. Photos of ships carrying refugees used here were found on the internet and seem to be from this archive.
Tallinn University Academic Library, Exiled persons record: http://isik.tlulib.ee/index.php/index.php?id=5, accessed 12/15
http://www.veniceclayartists.com/pottery-of-morocco/ Photo of antique moroccan pot accessed 11/29/16
Wellner, Mai. My Jack Fruit and My Tree of Song, Triinu magazine, issue #129, p8-9, January 1985. Translation provided by Kersti Linask, January, 2016, with title translated as “My Bread Tree and My Song Tree.”
Wright Auctions, Chicago
https://et.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anu_Raud, accessed 11/28/16
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_occupation_of_the_Baltic_states_(1940), accessed 11/29/16
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estonian_Swedes, accessed 1129/16
https://www.visitestonia.com/en/museum-of-the-coastal-swedes. accessed 11/28/16
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “An Emigre Designer,” theswedishrugblog (December 2, 2016); http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (month/day/year)