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Design professor wins Fulbright Scholar Award to create an interactive, digital Norwegian folktale

Author: Beth Staples

Sarah Edmands Martin
Sarah Edmands Martin in her studio. Photo by Myriam Nicodemus

Sarah Edmands Martin, an assistant professor of visual communication design, has been named a 2024 Fulbright Scholar and will use the award to design an interactive digital folktale at the University of Bergen in Norway.

“I’m very grateful to receive such a prestigious award at this stage in my career,” said Martin, who joined the Department of Art, Art History and Design in 2022. “I hope this will inspire future artists and designers to apply for this kind of award.”

Martin learned of the honor just before boarding a recent flight to New York City to deliver two papers at a design conference. One paper was about creativity in the age of artificial intelligence — which shares similarities with her Norwegian interactive digital folktale project.

“Design is an exchange of empathy between an artist or designer and an audience. Design builds bridges. I think design is a gift.”

“I like to think I would have nailed that talk without the boost of the good news, but I suspect knowing I’d just been awarded a Fulbright might have helped,” said Martin, who in 2015 earned a Master of Fine Arts in visual communication design at Notre Dame. “Either way, the talks went very well.”

The Fulbright Program’s purpose is to increase mutual understanding between people in the United States and people around the world — and increasing connections among people also is a goal of Martin’s work.

“Design is an exchange of empathy between an artist or designer and an audience. For example, you don’t need to know German to understand the beauty of Mozart,” said Martin. “Design builds bridges. I think design is a gift.”

Her gift as a Fulbright Scholar will be a responsive folktale that “digitally entangles” ancient buried folklore, computer learning, and Bergen storytelling techniques. 

Sarah Martin Project2
Martin working with archival materials in her design studio. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gill, Indiana University Office of the Provost

It’s too soon to know the precise form the folktale will take, Martin said. That will depend on what she finds after a computer scrapes two vast electronic literature archives in Norway and the contemporary folktales that people in Bergen share with her.

Martin will design the tale — with illustrations, photography, and typography — after analyzing recurring motifs and ideas within the archival folklore and the collected contemporary stories.

She said the project will elevate the strange, the eerie, and the magical — where the darkness sits just outside of what is considered ordinary. 

“Often we define what is normal by defining what is the other, or the darkness, or the cave, or the witch’s hut in the dark forest,” she said. “I wanted to explore that.”

Folk tales perform an important educational function in society, Martin said — they explain and explore both the horrific and the unknown from a safe distance. Northern Scandinavian folktales, in particular, explain people’s relationship to the Earth, land, and water. 

Bergen, which is surrounded by fjords, is an ideal place to do such an examination in the age of climate collapse and rising sea level, Martin said. And the University of Bergen is a natural location to pursue this project since the interdisciplinary, digital storytelling work being done there is world-class.

Martin will exhibit the folktale in Norway and, when she returns to Notre Dame, in the United States. Because it will be web-based and interactive, Martin wrote in her proposal that it “will be endlessly shaped by participatory tellings and re-tellings, mirroring the way mythologies adapt to contemporary moments.”

Sarah Martin Project Final
One of Martin's previous projects, Where the Shadow Falls, is a stop-motion animated installation at the Wylie House Museum at Indiana University focusing on the creative practice of Maggie Wylie Millette. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gill, Indiana University Office of the Provost

In a letter to Martin, Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board chair Donna Brazile wrote that the prestigious award is a reflection of Martin’s leadership and contributions to society. Since the program’s 1946 inception, Fulbrighters have also won multiple Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and MacArthur Genius Fellowships.

Martin’s design work has been recognized by the Paris Design Awards, London International Creative, and the Creative Communication Awards. Her client portfolio includes AMC’s The Walking Dead, Herman Miller, and Whirlpool.

As a designer, Martin strives to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. 

“I need to be working just outside of what I think I know,” she said. “The journey of design is finding the answer. There’s a lot of discomfort in not knowing along the way.”

That’s a lesson she imparts to students, alongside lessons in typography and branding, and the importance of responsibly and ethically leveraging the power of design.

“Design at Notre Dame is really special,” she said, “because it aligns so beautifully with the Catholic social tradition and with the mission of the University, which is to do good in this world.” 

“Design at Notre Dame is really special, because it aligns so beautifully with the Catholic social tradition and with the mission of the University, which is to do good in this world.”