“Packed in a Trunk” – The lost art and life of lesbian artist Edith Lake Wilkinson

Scheduled for release by Wolfe Video in both streaming and DVD formats on April 26th, 2016, Packed in a Trunk celebrates the long-buried talent of lesbian artist Edith Lake Wilkinson, who produced an astounding body of work as part of the Provincetown art scene in the early 20th century.

Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1868, Edith moved to New York at the age of 19 to study at the Art Students’ League. During the next 3 decades, she lived on the upper west side with her companion Fannie, travelled to Europe a number of times, and spent her summers with fellow artists in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she produced her finest work.

Then, in 1924 she was committed to the Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, a sanitarium for the mentally ill; this was quite possibly encouraged by the family lawyer who subsequently siphoned off her funds. But the real motive was obscured. The fact she was a lesbian in an era where such relationships were pretty much frowned upon.

So there were objections from the scolds of that era to Edith’s “close and constant contact” with her longtime companion Fannie. Since Edith’s only sister had died years earlier and her aged parents had recently died under suspicious circumstances, there was no family left to advocate for her. Once she was put away, Edith’s work and all her worldly possessions were packed into trunks and shipped off to her nephew in West Virginia, where they sat in an attic collecting dust for the next 40 years. Edith was never heard from again.

Edith’s great-niece, Jane Anderson (Emmy-winning writer & director) grew up surrounded by Edith’s paintings, thanks to her mother who had gone poking through that dusty attic and rescued Edith’s work. Anderson learned to paint and draw under the influence of her great-aunt’s brilliant, light- drenched canvasses, and Edith’s style became a part of Anderson’s visual vocabulary. Later, when she moved to New York to pursue her own life as an artist Anderson began a decades-long journey to get Edith’s work back out into the world.

Jane Anderson

Jane Anderson

Anderson’s earliest attempts in the 1970s to get some recognition for Wilkinson were met with little success, and she set the project aside as her own life became more demanding. She and her spouse Tess adopted a son, and her career in film, theater and television kept her working nonstop. But she always felt that she owed Edith in some way, and a few years ago decided to make Edith’s story a priority.

Working with award-winning documentary filmmakers Michelle Boyaner and Barbara Green, the team began a journey of discovery that took them from Los Angeles to Provincetown, Baltimore, and Wheeling. They track Jane and Tess in their efforts to unravel the mystery of Edith’s buried life, return the work to Provincetown, and have Edith’s contributions recognized by the art world.
During the two-year filming process, a number of surprising facts were revealed about Edith’s own life as well as her connection to the Provincetown Printmakers and significant early 20th-century artists. Anderson talks to family members, collectors, artists, gallery owners, art experts, and even a psychic in her quest to leave no stone unturned in Edith’s story.

With a visual style of saturated colors and rich textures, a lyrical score composed for the film by the talented Danielle Ate the Sandwich, and a team that leads from the heart, it explores the meaning of making art, whether one is recognized or not. It also brings into question the marginalization of people who live outside of societal acceptance, and lets us participate in all of this in a deeply personal and emotional way.

The film examines the parallel lives of two women born almost a hundred years apart. “I could have been her,” Anderson says, “but I’ve benefited from all those grand social movements that have given women of my proclivities the freedom to live however we damn well please. I’m now in my late fifties, the age Edith was when she was put away. I’m still productive and I’m very much loved. I have the life that Edith should have had. Edith’s paintings are a witness to my own happy life, and I feel I owe her something. It’s time to give her story a better ending.”
PACKED IN A TRUNK is about rescuing the work of lost and gifted souls out of attics and closets and forgotten rooms. It is about being seen.

Film Director Michelle Boyaner

Film Director Michelle Boyaner

Film Director Michelle Boyaner writes that: “Edith Lake Wilkinson’s story is heartbreaking and it made me angry. I had so many questions—and the questions (combined with the heartbreak and the anger) compelled me to be a part of this journey to try and help solve the mystery surrounding her life.

“Edith’s life was not unlike my own. We’re both lesbians (although in those days she wouldn’t have referred to herself that way ) with lives full of love and creating and friends. What changed for Edith was that she was suddenly committed to an asylum in 1924 and spent the last 32 years of her life locked away. Was it because she was gay? How could this have happened? Who let it happen?

“Full disclosure, I’ve been friends with Jane Anderson (Edith’s Great Niece) and Tess Ayers (Jane’s spouse) for nearly two decades. I had seen Edith’s artwork hanging in their home, but had never heard the “whole story” until Jane had a website about Edith built a few years ago. Jane had been carrying pieces of the story around with her for decades and was strongly compelled to once again try and help get Edith’s name out into the world. She also hoped to have the work acknowledged by the Provincetown art community where Edith had lived and thrived in the early 20th Century.

“Jane and Tess asked my partner (Cinematographer & Editor) Barbara Green and I if we would be interested in doing a documentary about Edith. I most definitely was in, but I wanted to tell the story through their eyes and follow them on their journey to uncover the mysteries of Edith’s life and return her work to Provincetown.

“During the nearly two years of production, the parallels of our lives and Edith’s was never lost on us. The 4 of us were all gay women who had the freedom to live our lives openly and we were constantly aware of the fact that Edith never had that opportunity The Supreme Court passed two very important rulings regarding Gay Marriage right in the midst of our filming, which underlined the disparity between the choices and advances we were able to partake of and the lack of freedom that Edith experienced.

“Along the way we shared more than a few disappointments. (Why do all the old Mental Hospitals have fires that destroy vital records? Sounds like a question for another documentary.) But we also discovered an enormous amount of evidence of what Edith saw and where she lived and loved— and a beautiful, art-filled town that had inadvertently left her out of its rich, storied history, but was now ready to right that wrong. Redemption is a beautiful thing when shared by a group of people.

“It’s been incredibly powerful to bear witness to Edith’s “Return to Provincetown” and Jane and Tess’s success in re-writing Edith’s legacy (“never, ever, ever, ever give up.”) Once lost, Edith is now found, on the road to being restored to her proper place in art history among her peers from the early art colony of Provincetown. I hope the film will also inspire others to help uncover the rich histories of deserving people in their lives who never had the chance to shine in their own lifetimes.”

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