by Sandra Marshall
Edna’s life had a somewhat royal beginning, as her parents were employed by Britain’s Royal Household and they lived in the Royal Mews in London, England. As a girl she had wonderful freedom to roam and explore the stables, and nearby St. James Park and Hyde Park. Her life was filled with visions of huge horses, carriages, blacksmithing, all manner of birds, fish, flowers and trees that have become inspiration for her artwork. Edna’s first art impulses were sparked by the colourful and free illustrations of impressionists Van Gogh and Gaugin in her school classrooms. After high school she turned to courses in technical illustration. Adept at this work, she was later able to skillfully translate the plans and elevations of mechanical equipment into 3-dimensional drawings, a skill still useful in building her 3D sculptures.
In 1962, newly married, she and her husband Clement moved to Quebec City where he became a professor at Université Laval. As their family grew from none to four children, Edna took evening art classes where she was introduced to new concepts each month, such as leather work and painting nature. She found it a relief to be engaged in these creative activities while adjusting to her new home and new language.
She began painting wildlife in her spare time in Quebec, but Edna found more creative space in her life when the family moved to Ottawa and she enrolled in an Honours programme of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. She was particularly enamoured by printing – which closely resembled her black and white illustrations. She always anticipated the surprise of seeing the first print emerge. She also began making light boxes, whimsical flying people in papier mâché and fanciful painted penguins in seascapes using old fashion mannequin props.
With some colleagues after university, they found rental space in unused buildings where they worked on projects together and even rented advertising space in buses to show their work. It was very reassuring to Edna to be with other artists and to see their unique patterns of work. When the studio spaces became unavailable, Edna began to work from home, but she needed, in Virginia Wolf’s words, “a room of one’s own”. Her personal studio became a creative world of her own. This space gave Edna the freedom to develop her artistic individuality. She says that it’s a very messy place but a personal oasis for her to expand and grow.
Papier mâché captured her attention when she spied the work of Victor Tolgesy hanging from the ceiling of the Byward Market Building. She contacted him for information about the process and she found him very accommodating and kind. Tolgesy’s work appealed to Edna’s sense of play and joy. She was also influenced by René Magritte as she recognized that he changed visual reality into his own creative reality where anything was possible.
As a teenager Edna remembers having dreams of flying with birds, an amazing sense of freedom and she uses that motif in some of her work, but she does not want to be constrained in her ideas. Her designs begin with an image in her mind which is not well defined. Using papier mâché allows her to make changes and offers her hands the impetus toward her vision of the finished product. This process begins by drawing on a foam board. She then builds a skeleton using strong wire which is glued to the foam core. At this stage the framework can be twisted and bent to achieve the desired shape. Multiple layers of newspaper are applied with glue to build the shape. The glue, Natura, is allowed to dry between each additional layer. For the final layer, paper towels are applied before finishing the work with acrylic paint.
The musical “Come from Away” has a special deep meaning for Edna and is the stimulus for future creations. It was a reminder of her mother who related that, eight months pregnant with Edna, she was evacuated to Windsor with Edna’s older sister at the beginning of the war in 1939. They travelled by train with many other families. Upon arrival, all the families were lined up on the platform as strangers walked by and chose which family would live with them. Her mother and sister were the last ones to be chosen, but we lived with those strangers for the duration of the war and became good friends.
A humorous future project that Edna anticipates with relish is to compose a cartoon of a certain president trying to prevent birds from entering the United States on their southern migration.