Emily Edwards, artist, art historian, teacher, and cofounder of the San Antonio Conservation Society, was born in San Antonio on October 7, 1888, the third of five children of Frank Mudge and Lillian (Brockway) Edwards. Her mother died in 1895. From 1898 to 1902 Emily and her three sisters boarded at the Ursaline Academy, where her talents as an artist were first manifested in sketches she made at an early age. She subsequently attended the San Antonio Female Institute for two years and studied drawing with sculptor Pompeo Coppini.
In 1905 she moved to Chicago, where she stayed with relatives and attended the Art Institute of Chicago; she studied with Enella Benedict, Ralph Clarkson, Harry Walcott, and John Vanderpoel. In her second year there she began working at the institute to pay her tuition. She also taught volunteer classes at Hull House, the settlement house established by Jane Addams, and taught at several girls' schools. From 1915 to 1917 she taught at the Francis Parker School, where the approach to learning through experience influenced her own teaching methods.
In 1917 Edwards returned to San Antonio to teach art at Brackenridge High School. In 1920 she taught at a mountain mission in Charles Town, West Virginia, then worked as a designer in a New York City theater for a short period of time, and subsequently made puppets and staged puppet shows in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She taught at Hull House again before returning to San Antonio in the early 1920s. In 1924 Emily Edwards and Rena Maverick Green cofounded the San Antonio Conservation Society. As the first president (1924–26), Edwards led the society's crusade to prevent the river bend area from being paved over by the city. In 1926 she produced an annotated historical map of San Antonio to raise funds for the society and staged a puppet show based on a childhood fable for the city council, The Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs, in which the goose represented the unique character ("local peculiarities") of San Antonio, while its golden eggs symbolized missions, tourists, natural beauty, and civic pride. The original script called for hand-crafted puppets that resembled the city commissioners, who mediated an argument between Mr. and Mrs. San Antonio regarding the goose. The show was a hit, and the river was saved for posterity (see San Antonio River Walk [Paseo del Rio]).
During the summers of 1925 and 1926 Emily Edwards traveled with a friend to Mexico, where she met the muralist Diego Rivera, who became a life-long friend. Her studies with Rivera stimulated an interest in Mexican murals, and Edwards subsequently spent ten years in Mexico, sketching in small villages and conducting research for a book on Mexican mural painting from the pre-Columbian era to modern times. She published a pamphlet, The Frescoes by Diego Rivera in Cuernavaca (1932), and a tourist guide, Modern Mexican Frescoes (1934), which was accompanied by a map to frescoes in the center of Mexico City. In 1932 she published a map of Mexico City, which was later reprinted and in the 1990s was displayed for sale at the San Antonio Museum of Art. During the 1930s Edwards established a modest reputation as an artist, exhibiting watercolors and color-block prints of landscapes, children, and Mexican subjects in Texas and New York. One of her prints was included in an International Exhibition of Prints in London, England. During her years in Mexico she was married to Librado de Cantabrana, with whom she had a child who died in infancy. She was divorced by the late 1930s, when she moved to Chicago to head the art program at Hull House.
In the late 1950s Edwards rewrote the script of The Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs to defend the preservation of the river walk and returned to San Antonio, where she remained until her death. In 1976 she received a special award from the Texas Society of Architects for her "contributions to the quality of life in Texas." She wrote three books during this period: Painted Walls of Mexico from Prehistoric Times Until Today (1966); Stones, Bells, Lighted Candles: Personal Memories of the Old Ursuline Academy in San Antonio at the Turn of the Century (1981), a memoir; and F. Giraud and San Antonio (1985), a biography of François P. Giraud, an early San Antonio architect. The latter two books were published after Edwards's death on February 16, 1980. Examples of her work are included in the collection of the San Antonio Museum Association and the San Antonio Art League.