This blog post explores work of two individual textile artists, but also celebrates a family’s creative legacy.
Born in January, 1919 in Västmanland, Sweden, the textile artist and painter, Gerd Göran is now 100 years old. She had her most recent exhibition of paintings this past January, and continues to work as she can, although with deteriorating eyesight. She has been the subject of multiple newspaper interviews and conversations about art, a documentary film (“Feeling Yellow”) and a book called She Paints the Meadows. These days she is most frequently photographed in her signature yellow —hat, scarf, shoes as the spirit moves her, and she has snappy orange glasses which help somewhat to correct her eyesight.
Born with the family name of Akre, Gerd moved with her family to a small town named Skåre, outside of Karlstad in Värmland county when she was three. This county is more or less directly west of Stockholm, located next to Norway. With a sister and three brothers, she had a happy childhood which several of the siblings later commemorated in a book called The Green House in Skåre. Gerd studied textile design — and mastered all kinds of textile arts: weaving, sewing, embroidery and knitting— at the art school (Tekniska Hogskola) in Stockholm which later came to be called Konstfack from 1936-41. She recalls that when Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, students abandoned their looms “in shock….The feeling was that we would never come back.”
But Gerd did finish school, and began to work in the textile field. She and a partner, another student from Konstfack named Greta Nileus, ambitiously purchased a weaving mill which was no longer in use, in Rackstad near the town of Arvika, in Värmland. This was located about 60 miles northwest of Karlstad. The mill, previously called Fjaestads Väveri, was founded by Gustav and Maja Fjaested in 1901. At the turn of the century, the Fjaesteds had been founders and members of a colony of artists determined to live closer to the nature they drew inspiration from. (See previous blog post of March 26, 2017 on designer Brita Grahn which mentions Gustav Fjaested’s designs for large tapestries woven by his sisters Amalia and Anna).
A reporter for Dagens Nyheter newspaper in 1943, happy to have some good news, reported on the new collection of young crafts people gathered in the former Rackstad artists’ colony: several weavers, ceramicists, and woodworkers. “In the large brown building where in their time, the Fjaestad sisters wove tapestries with naturalistic elements, two young textile artists now watch over the five looms and the tapestry loom,” the article stated. In an interview with the mill’s new owners, the two young women,Gerd Akre and Greta Nileus, made clear that they planned to start weaving simpler rag rugs and would wait on more laborious tapestries. The ongoing problem of obtaining wool yarn was a problem: they were practicing with using straw, but optimistically expected the problem to ease in time. But the Second World War was not yet over, and shortages would remain a problem for a number of years, despite Sweden’s neutral status. The article mentions the collective dream of the colony’s new residents: to open a crafts school, but unfortunately this dream was never realized. Gerd played a role in the workings of this weaving operation until 1945, her partner is recorded to have sold her share in 1951.
Also in 1943, Gerd married a fellow artist, Niklas Göran, who had learned blacksmithing from his father and grandfather. His mother was also involved in crafts and had made furniture.
The couple met at Rackstad. Niklas was a widower with a young daughter, whom Gerd mothered, and several years later, the couple began to have other children. The family moved to Stockholm in 1945, and from 1946-51, Niklas studied sculpture while Gerd had various weaving jobs and cared for their four children. In 1951 they both had travel grants to study in Italy and France, while their children (then 14, 6, 5, and 1) stayed with their grandmother for two months.
In 1953, Gerd and Niklas moved with the four children to their own rural corner of Sweden: in Sångshytten, near Hällefors, in Örebro County, to a house on property bought earlier by her parents, and near Karmansbo where she had been born. Hällefors was at that time a town in the middle of the woods, but with streams and small lakes nearby. But it was a busy town, operating with sawmills and steelworks. In the nearby village of Sångshytten, both Gerd and Niklas had their own studios, Niklas made his own sculpting tools, and they lived a self-sufficient and apparently fairly idyllic rural life.There was a vegetable garden, outdoor exploring and play for their children and at least initially, just bicycles for transportation. They had two more children, born here. It was an unusual arrangement for a textile artist— to manage to raise six children and at the same time, make art that could support them. But with a shared attitude toward their work and family, Gerd and Niklas seem to have managed to make it work.
For a newspaper interview written this past January anticipating her mother’s 100th birthday, their daughter Annika recalled, “ You thought the whole world was like this. Mom and dad worked at home and were close, and life was about taking care of nature and each other. It was a creative and safe home.” And their daughter Malin expressed a similar thought, “ Growing up in rural Sweden, I lived intimately intertwined with the surrounding nature and my parents’ unrelenting endeavour to develop as artists. This has given me a strong bond to the artistic way of life and a feeling of satisfaction from the passing on of a tradition.”
Unlike other of her peers during the 1940s,‘50s and ‘60s, Gerd’s varied textile designs were not for a local hemslöjd, or county crafts association. Instead, during the 50s and 60s, she contracted with various manufacturing companies to make designs for rug patterns, especially rya rug patterns, that customers could buy. Some of these companies sold woolen yarns — another of my blog posts (“Designers of Bergå Rya Rugs,” from Nov. 3, 2017) looks at the Bergå yarn company. One of Gerd’s designs for that company’s catalog of rya patterns, a pattern called “Rosa” is shown in that post. Gerd designed four other rugs for Bergå, including the one shown below. She helped support her family with her varied textile work for some time. She also designed wallpaper patterns, won first prize for a printed fabric pattern for Mölnlycke Väfveri, one of Sweden’s largest textile manufacturers, and she also made a number of textile “applications” or collages. She was also commissioned to create public textile decorations for installation in a hospital, park facility and a university setting.
Also for Bergå, and probably also during the 1960s, Gerd designed the wonderful rug below, an stylized flower stalk with rosy suns in two corners, called “Sunflower” (“Solros”). It is clear that her bold graphic style is entirely expressive of her personality: ebullient and colorful.
Detail of Gerd Göran rya, “Solros,” 140 x 200 cm.
Detail of Gerd Göran rya, “Solros,” 140 x 200 cm.
Gerd’s husband Niklas died in 2000, but Gerd is very proud that the creativity which her children grew up with, has been passed down to her children and even to her great grand children. Several of her daughters paint, and at one point she and one daughter, Malin, and granddaughter Maria showed their work together as “Three Generations” of artists. Her daughter Mia is also an artist, and her granddaughter Emelie (Malin’s daughter), a photographer. And as Gerd has aged, she has continued to find new ways to joyfully express herself. She took up dance after Niklas died, and is so enthusiastic about this that she comments that doctors should add dance to their prescriptions!
At some point, Gerd decided her hair should be red, and this too marked a new phase of her life.
Gerd’s daughter, Malin Lager, did a portrait of her mother with red hair which was included in a 2014 Monterey (California) Museum of Art exhibition of Malin’s work.
While this portrait looks like a painting, it is instead an extraordinary piece of textile work. Malin Lager does not paint, but uses her sewing machine to make large-scale free-form embroideries. This is a working process which she invented herself, and has been exploring for the past 36 years. She took trees and grasses as her initial subjects, but moved to extreme close-up views of wet cobblestones and exquisite sulphur-colored lichen on rocks. In a kind of wonderful “what’s new is old” moment or perhaps a coincidence which illustrates, “how the old is made new”, Malin’s “Lustrous Reflections” series explore some of the same qualities of the ephemeral movement of light on water explored at the beginning of the 20th-century by Gustav Fjaestad—- whose weaving mill/atelier her mother had briefly owned. His works translated painting into gobelin tapestry; hers translate photography into free-hand textile composition.
Malin’s process is to start with a piece of sturdy sailcloth, on which she sketches her motif. After that, she layers pieces of fabric, often silk, in a collage-like way following the overall design she has in mind, and basting them in place, as underlayment for her machine stitching. She likens this to the underpainting a painter may do. She uses her 1984 sewing machine, with the motion foot disabled, so that she can guide and turn it as she will on the fabric to created the directional strokes of whatever length she wants. Her “paint” is silk thread, thin and lustrous, but used to create texture as well as color or tone. She has had to learn how to judge from working very close up what the effect from a distance her “brush strokes” will have. It is a time-consuming process, often taking her 3-4 months on a single piece.
Malin remembers how eager she was for her mother to teach her to embroider and knit as a young child, and how much pleasure it gave her to manipulate threads and yarns. Yet when she went to art school herself in Gothenburg, she studied sculpture before switching to textiles. Malin feels that there is something sculptural about the work she does today, creating a kind of optical and physical 3-dimensionality.
Her most recent challenge has been portraits, which she has done for about 9 years, with family and friends as her earliest models. She works from photographs, and says that she needs to get the eyes of her subjects ‘right’ before going further to explore skin tones and facial geometry. Amusingly, she notes that necks are the hardest part for her to detail, since they don’t have much shape. But her work is startling and quietly thrilling. I think this is because its apparent photographic accuracy is subverted by the crafted, built-up quality of the image itself. And yet that craftsmanship is rigorously contemporary— made not by a hand using an embroidery needle, but a hand guiding a sewing machine.
It is really fun to see Gerd’s bold expressive hand with her rug and textile designs transmuted into something quite different in Malin’s work. Malin’s appreciation for the gift of this family craft and textile tradition is evident in her invention of her own remarkable working process. In the portrait of her mother, red-haired and colorfully clad, Malin captures perfectly not only her skin tones but her joy in living.
The photo below was taken to celebrate Gerd’s upcoming 100th birthday, and shows Gerd zestfully cutting a Black-Forest Cake. She deserves recognition for her own work, and perhaps just as much, for the family of artists she raised.
Sources (Dates are given as month/day/year)
Göteborgs Posten, review of Malin Lager exhibition, 11/25/2000
Göteborgs Tidningen, review of Malin Lager exhibition, 10/11/1997
historiebloggen.rakstadkvarnforening.se/wp/ tag/1940-talet/ This cites October 18, 1943 Dagens Nyheter article.
maryloujasperart on instagram, cropped photo from 2/25/19
Östgöta Correspondenten, review of Malin Lager exhibition, 5/15/17
p4orebro on instagram, photo of Gerd 1/17/19
Svenska Dagbladet, https://www.skd.se/2017/04/25/98-arig-kolorist/
Snider, Uuve, Rya Mattan, prisma publishers, 2007
—https://theworldnews.net/se-news/halleforsprofilen-gerd-goran-fyller-tresiffrigt-100-later-sa-maktigt-men-jag-kanner-mig-ju-som-vanligt , January 5, 2019 article from Hällefors newspaper, and source of all family photos. Author unclear: Annika N but otherwise unidentified. Robban Andersson, photographer.
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “A Sunflower, a Portrait and a Cake: Gerd Göran and Malin Lager,” theswedishrugblog (6/15/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)