In December Northwestern will celebrate 15 years of a unique artistic partnership of visual art and music through artist Martha Ensign Johnson’s commissioned works for Christmas at Northwestern. A complete retrospective of Johnson’s art will be included in this year’s Christmas at Northwestern concert program.
By Timothy Sawyer
For 13 years, the two-story red house across the street from mine was home to Martha Ensign Johnson, a remarkable artist/teacher and printmaker whose works have been exhibited around the United States and internationally. A member of the art faculty at Northwestern from 1997–2004, she taught and modeled that which constitutes true art, and its power to communicate beauty and spiritual truth to a generation of students.
Much more than art for its own sake, Martha’s works flow from a life as an artist for Christ’s sake. Her work radiates her clearly Christian worldview and resonates deep biblical truth in visual images which often speak of something deeper than can be seen on the page.
Martha’s Northwestern connection began in 1995 when, as the new artistic director for Christmas at Northwestern, I invited her to design the program cover for the college’s annual Christmas concert of worship and celebration. One of Martha’s unique creations has been featured on the program cover for Christmas at Northwestern each year since then.
That first year, not only did Martha create an exquisite Italian Renaissance angel, she also crafted two 10-foot paper angels constructed from handmade paper made in her garage, using a blender (to mix the pulp) and a hair dryer. Those angels flew on each side of the stage in Maranatha Hall, a spectacular one-of-a-kind creation—long gone but vividly remembered.
Though her primary area of expertise is etching on various metals and printmaking, she is also comfortable in widely varied media including colored pencil, watercolor, woodcut, collagraph, and prints superimposed on vividly colored hand-dyed silk, quilted and hand stitched. Her works can be seen in office buildings and galleries, homes, churches and community centers throughout the country.
Described as “intricate and richly layered,” they are remarkable not only for their attention to detail, but also for intimate meanings often embedded within and even hidden inside them.
After graduating with a B.A. in visual arts from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Martha studied in Florence, Italy, at the Santa Reparata Graphic Art Center. In more recent years, she has also done summer sabbatical research in France. Currently residing in Montecito, California, Martha is a member of the art faculty at Westmont College.
Martha might not be making paper angels in the garage any longer, but the work she began at Northwestern continues to inspire a new generation of printmakers lighting the way.
Timothy Sawyer has been a member of Northwestern’s music faculty since 1989. As associate professor of music and director of choral activities, he conducts the College Choir and Varsity Men’s Chorus, teaches conducting and serves as artistic director of Christmas at Northwestern.
Martha Ensign Johnson taught printmaking and art history at University of Northwestern from 1997 to 2004 when she and her husband Don, a Covenant minister, relocated from Minnesota to Santa Barbara, California. A sampling of her works and complete information about her art and career can be found at marthaensignjohnson.com.