Thea Ekström was an artist. She was active and attracted attention mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, when her work was exhibited in many places in Sweden and abroad.
Thea Ekström was born Dorothea Svensson in Söndrum outside Halmstad in 1920. As a child, she was often ill and therefore only attended elementary school for four years. Her mother probably did not work outside the home. Her father worked in a local quarry and was a successful amateur musician. His first wife, the mother of Thea’s half-sister Elsa, had died prematurely. The family lived under meagre economic circumstances.
Thea Ekström moved to Stockholm in 1937 to study to be a church musician and organist. Parallel with these studies, she worked at Oscarsteatern as a singer and dancer. Her daughter Christine was born in 1939. During the summers of 1938 and 1939, she toured with the ladies orchestra Hälsingeflickorna in the folk parks and in 1940 also a number of military camps all over Sweden. The same year, she was employed as a musician in the production of Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper at Oscarsteatern, and she abandoned her music studies. After having been infected with tuberculosis, the life of a touring musician became impossible and she earned her living instead as a bar pianist in 1942—1943 and worked at a fun fair. During the same period, she hid war refugees in her home.
When Thea Ekström was appointed as costume designer and decorator at another Stockholm theatre, Söderfolkan, in 1943, she started a love affair with the theatre’s leader, Lennart Ekström, who wrote theatre manuscripts. The couple married in 1945. The marriage was ended in 1963, after a divorce process that took several years. She never married again.
In connection with a convalescence at the beginning of the 1950s, she started her art studies at the WEA, which led her on to Pernby’s school of painting. She also followed the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts’ (Konstakademien’s) teaching in 1958 as an external student. She studied croquis for Bror Hjorth and sometimes also participated in Lennart Rodhe’s classes in drawing and painting. She also attended the lectures on art history and theory that the senior lecturer at Stockholm University at that time, Oscar Reutersvärd, held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts.
Strengthened by her studies at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts Thea Ekström found herself an atelier of her own for the first time in 1960 in a very run-down building due for demolition at Brunnsgatan 26 in Stockholm. The same year, she had her first separate exhibition at Galleri Lilla Paviljongen (later Hos Petra) on Söder in Stockholm. One of the paintings in the exhibition was purchased by Moderna Museet.
Only two years later, in 1962, Thea Ekström had her first international separate exhibition at Galerie Raymond Cordier in Paris. The prime minister at that time, Georges Pompidou, bought one of her works, as did the French artist Jean Dubuffet. She also had a separate exhibition at home in Stockholm at Galleri Observatorium. The year after, in 1963, she participated in the Swedish Institute’s travelling exhibition Twelve Swedish artists visit the USA, in which Olle Baertling, Öyvind Fahlström and Endre Nemes also participated. The exhibition was also shown at the Atheneum in Helsinki. In USA, Thea Ekström also participated in the twenty-second session of the Biennal of Watercolor.
In 1963, her divorce from Lennart Ekström was finalised and her atelier at Brunnsgatan 26 now became Thea Ekström’s home — despite barely being heated and also lacking hot water. Parallel with her art, she had a number of jobs to earn her daily bread. The same year, Cavefors förlag published Hans Axel Holm’s collection of essays entitled Svenska bilder that among other things contained an interview with Thea Ekström. The following period of fifteen years was to be intensive and successful for Thea Ekström, both in Sweden and abroad. After Twelve Swedish artists visit the USA in 1963, she was already engaged the following year for a separate exhibition at the Viviano Gallery in New York, and in 1967 she participated in exhibitions with other artists in Tokyo. During the same period, she moved to a large flat in Sibyllegatan and left her Spartan way of life at Brunnsgatan 26 — a decision that was hurried along when a triple murder took place in the decaying old building, where many criminals also operated.
In 1968, the Viviano Gallery had yet another exhibition of Thea Ekström’s work. In Sweden, her works were shown at the Norrköping Art Museum the same year, and the year after at Galerie Blanche in Stockholm. In 1969, Ragnar von Holten’s book Surrealismen i svensk konst appeared, in which Thea Ekström is represented. Her art was also chosen that year for the national Riksutställningar’s collective exhibition Surrealism? that was shown the same year at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Göteborgs konsthall, Sundsvalls Museum och Malmö Art Museum. She had yet another American solo exhibition in 1971, this time at Gallery Marc Moyens in Washington. That year she was one of many international artists in the great collective exhibition Der Geist des Surrealismus in Köln, and one of the paintings she showed there was later purchased by Moderna Museet.
In 1972, the art gallery Gröna Paletten in Stockholm held a separate exhibition with her art. The same year, she exhibited along with Ragnar von Holten at Galerie Belle in Västerås. They both also had a shared exhibition at the Swedish Institute in Paris in 1975. The year after, Riksutställningar organised a touring separate exhibition, at the same time purchasing ten of her paintings. In 1977, Konstnärshuset in Stockholm put on a great Thea Ekström-retrospective with about 100 works — an exhibition that attracted a great deal of attention and became a success in terms of criticism, public attendance figures and sales. Swedish Television made a programme, produced by Bent-Åke Kimbré, about her artistry. The same year, 1977, Thea Ekström’s paintings were also included in the Västerås Art Museum’s group exhibition Fantasins frigörelse, that also went on tour.
During her time as a student at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts at the end of the 1950s, Thea Ekström had met Oscar Reutersvärd via his classes there in art history. He was a senior lecturer since 1953 at Stockholm University and was appointed professor of art history in 1964 with art theory at Lund University. From the 1960s onwards, he had a parallel career as an artist. As a mentor and partner in discussions, he soon became very important to Thea Ekström, who had dedicated works to him several times— often by quite simply situating the text ”till Oscar” in the middle of a picture to point him out explicitly as the person to whom the art work was mainly addressed. Their relationship was also emotional, which was certainly problematical since both were married, even though she divorced in 1963. As her advocate in his widespread Swedish and international network, he had good opportunities of introducing her artistry in a number of contexts, not least on account of the respect accorded to a professorship in art history. Yet her art seems to have had its own power to generate interest rapidly once it had been discovered by a quickly growing number of gallery owners, art critics and art lovers.
Thea Ekström died in 1988, and was buried in Solna Cemetery. She is currently represented by works in Halland Art Museum, Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Norrköping Art Museum and Moderna Museet in Stockholm.