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Virginia West Martin, fabric artist and former MICA teacher, dies

Virginia West Martin had an international reputation as a weaver.
Virginia West Martin had an international reputation as a weaver.

Virginia West Martin, a fabric artist and former Maryland Institute College of Art faculty member, died of a stroke March 18 at the family home in Bethany Beach, Delaware. She was 96 and had lived in Canton. Ms. Martin was also the 1972 National Coordinator for a POW/MIA organization after her oldest son was reported missing in action in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

She was a resident of the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson.

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Born in Boston and raised in Baltimore on Caroline Street, she was the daughter of Alexander McWilliam and Beatrice Lowe. In a memoir, she said her father died and as she observed the trials her mother endured to support her two young daughters, she became a feminist while she was young.

She attended Baltimore schools and Goucher College, said her daughter, Lynnea Salvo.

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In an autobiographical sketch, Ms. Martin wrote of herself: “Her family was her pride and joy. She considered her role as a wife and mother the most important in life and she made sure that, as each child grew, each was given the opportunity to study the interests that appealed to them, whether it was music, horseback riding, science, soccer, scouts, football, skiing, or taxidermy, activities that kept her busy carpooling many hours per week.”

Her son, Air Force Capt. John Thomas West, disappeared while flying an F-4 Phantom jet over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1970. She received no word of his whereabouts or fate.

She made connections with others and went on to be National Coordinator for National League of Families, a POW/MIA activist organization. She traveled to North Vietnam and Laos in 1974 as part of her effort to gain information about her son’s whereabouts.

Ms. Martin, who in the 1960s lived on Grasty Road in Pikesville, developed an interest in art and discovered weaving.

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She studied at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she later taught for 13 years and was a pioneer in the creation of the school’s Fiber Department.

“Virginia had real style. She was elegant and distinguished,” said Fred Lazarus, former MICA president. “She did beautiful weaving and was a good artist and craftsperson.”

She went on to serve as president of the Baltimore Weavers Guild and president of the Maryland Craft Council.

She was well known as a weaver and gave workshops and lectures throughout the country, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

She wrote five books on weaving, and her work “Finishing Touches for the Handweaver” went through numerous editions.

She also wrote on the subject for publications and made fiber creations for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, the downtown Hilton and the Center Club.

In the 1970s she became active in the Art to Wear movement. She participated and curated fashion shows.

She described Art to Wear as garments that “make the wearer look and feel special.”

She wrote, “This is not clothing in the traditional sense, but expressionistic work by artists who have chosen the body as a vehicle to relate deep personal feelings about color, form and imagery.”

She also wove art works for display.

“Her exquisite weavings grace walls, floors, and windows all over the world,” said a friend, Anne Heuisler.

“Virginia spearheaded the Inquisitive Minds program at Blakehurst,” the retirement community on Joppa Road. “She coordinated courses and lectures on art, history, religion, science, philosophy, music, mythology. She recruited leaders for the sessions and planned the schedule.”

Ms. Heuisler also said, “Her mild manner and modesty belied her great success and wide regard as a fabric artist. Her books of patterns and instructions are invaluable to weavers everywhere. She was invited to lead workshops all over the U.S. and in Europe.”

Ms. Martin also enjoyed movies, theater, and opera.

“She truly had an inquisitive mind,” said Ms. Heuisler. “In her apartment were two sofas upholstered with bright red fabric she had woven. She also displayed upon request a rack of garments she had made from her fabrics. Created from her own patterns, they featured lengths of fabric and simple lines which showed the texture to best effect. She often wore these garments, being her own best model.”

Ms. Martin was also an environmental activist and was quoted in 1973 articles about stormwater runoff in the Grasty Road-Stevenson area.

Her husband of 38 years, Frank Martin Jr., a retired BGE supervisor and World War II veteran, died in 2012. A previous marriage ended in divorce.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include another daughter, Elise Manieri of Sarasota, Florida; two sons, David West of Denver and Michael West of Bixby, Oklahoma; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Her son, John Thomas West, was reported missing in action Jan. 2, 1970.

A memorial service is planned at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

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