PROVINCETOWN –Jane Anderson, an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and film director from Los Angeles, stood on a chair so she could be heard in the packed Larkin Gallery Friday night, as a crowd spilled out onto Commercial Street in Provincetown’s East End.
The occasion was the first one-woman show for Edith Lake Wilkinson, who was Anderson’s great-aunt and an artist who painted in Provincetown from 1915 to 1923.
But in what appears to be a terrible injustice, in 1925, Wilkinson, at age 58, was committed to an insane asylum where she spent the last 30 years of her life.
“The last time Edith was here was almost 90 years ago,” Anderson said to the crowd gathered at Larkin. “No doubt she came into this very spot to buy her supplies.”
Coincidently, a building that appears to be the same one that houses the Larkin Gallery is in one of Wilkinson’s paintings with the sign, “West End Market,” a business that Wilkinson likely patronized when she lived in Provincetown.
A large tree in that same painting’s foreground is severely cut back, “blunted and homely and barely alive”—in Anderson’s words. Anderson believes the tree in the painting is the same one that is across the street, now fully recovered, its long limbs dense and heavy with green leaves.
“When you leave the gallery tonight, pay your respects to that tree. It bares witness to her resurrection,” she said of her great-aunt’s return to Provincetown in the gallery show.
Wilkinson’s paintings, which have hung most recently in Anderson’s home in California, take on an extra glow in Provincetown, Anderson said, “as if a light was switched on inside the canvases.”
“Edith is back where she belongs,” Anderson said, finishing her emotional speech to applause, as a documentary film crew panned the room of people straining to get a look at the paintings.
Bringing Wilkinson’s paintings back to Provincetown has become a personal mission for Anderson and not just because they are related. In the early 1960s, Anderson’s mother Polly discovered Wilkinson’s paintings in trunks in the attic of the West Virginia home of Polly’s sister-in-law Betty and her husband Eddie. Edith Wilkinson had been Eddie’s aunt, and he was her only surviving relative.
In 1925, after Wilkinson was committed to the asylum, all of her possessions were packed in trunks and shipped to her nephew Eddie’s home and that’s where they remained, forgotten.
But Anderson also sees in the institutionalization of Wilkinson, a single woman who had a longtime female companion, an injustice that may have had something to do with her bohemian lifestyle.
“Maiden spinster ladies, they don’t have children. Their nieces and nephews dismissed them and they disappeared,” Anderson said.
In contrast, Anderson and her spouse, Tess, who have been together for more than 30 years, have a college-aged son, and Anderson has had a long and productive career as an artist and writer. “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 have the life that Edith should have had,” Anderson wrote in an essay about Wilkinson.
Documentary Of An Artist
At the Larkin Gallery, Anderson announced that everyone assembled was part of the finale of the documentary film she is working on with Greenie Films, “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson,” about her journey to discover what happened to her great-aunt, a tale with the brutal indignities of a Dickens novel.
Edith Lake Wilkinson was born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1868. Her mother was an artist and art teacher. Edith followed that path, moving to New York City at age 20 to enroll at the Arts Students League. She later studied painting with William Merritt Chase. In 1900, she enrolled at Teachers College at Columbia, majoring in Fine Arts, and began living in New York City with her longtime companion, Fannie Wilkinson, no relation. They travelled to Europe together. From 1915 to 1923, they spent summers and autumns in Provincetown where Edith joined the art colony.
Like other artists who came to the Cape’s tip 100 years ago, Edith Lake Wilkinson liked to paint the side streets, catching the sun’s reflections off what Anderson called “ragtag geometry of the roofs, churches and town hall” in Provincetown.
But Wilkinson never became a well-known artist and never had her own gallery show. Instead, she was committed to an insane asylum where she lived out the last years of her life.
The attorney who put her there was later disbarred for siphoning off the money of his clients, among them Wilkinson. He took over management of her family’s estate after her parents were killed by gas asphyxiation in their home.
Like a detective solving a mystery, Anderson has discovered Wilkinson’s story by traveling to all the places she lived and looking through documents she left behind. The investigation has been captured all along the way by the documentary crew.
Inspired By Edith
As a child, Anderson admired Wilkinson’s paintings, which decorated the walls of her home. She believes the colorful canvases inspired her to become an artist.
“Growing up with Edith’s work, by osmosis I learned about color, brushwork, just by being surrounded by her work,” she said.
Thinking back to a child’s point of view, Anderson said she saw her great-aunt’s paintings as “sun-drenched canvases in which I learned that shadows weren’t black but could be every shade of blue and purple. She was, I think, a brilliant colorist. Her impressionist work involved not just the usual palette of pale greens and yellows and oranges. Edith would throw in a deep saturated pink in the middle of a beach scene. In her later Fauvist work, she uses a deep ultra-marine blue, an Yves Klein blue, this brilliant lapis lazuli blue “that I’m convinced she picked up from the blue in Portuguese wooden sculptures that were found in the trunk.”
Edith The Artist
Anderson continued, “Edith was fearless with her colors. Also her brush strokes were incredibly confident. She had a strong clear hand. She didn’t go over the same section. She knew where she wanted the paint to be. She was really a gifted draftsman.”
When Anderson was in her mid-20s, she found Wilkinson’s sketchbooks. By then an artist in New York City, Anderson was also keeping sketchbooks and she found that they were similar. “What interested us and what we both took note of [was similar]. I’ve always had this connection to her,” she said.
Anderson said when she was growing up, no one in her family talked about Wilkinson. “She was a mysterious lady—this lady who had painted these pictures. “
But as Anderson became an adult, she started asking questions and getting pieces of the story.
Anderson’s research into what happened to her great-aunt has taken her to the grounds of Sheppard Pratt Institution in Baltimore, where the estate attorney George Rogers first had her committed.
The facility was at that time on the cutting edge of progressive treatment. Zelda Fitzgerald had spent time there around the same time Wilkinson was there. It offered occupational therapy, so patients could paint, but the only surviving pieces are, as Anderson said, “two very sad craft projects they had her do from a kit . . . a comb case and a change purse.”
When Anderson visited the institution as part of the documentary, the director looked up old records and found Wilkinson’s admission card from 1925. There is no diagnosis, but it describes Wilkinson as in a “paranoid state.”
It was years later that she was moved to a state institution, perhaps because the family money had run out.
“That was a horrible place. Patients were in overcrowded wards, no visitors,” Anderson said.
Because Anderson did not know her great-aunt, she said she gains clues to her personality from her artwork. “The more I study her sketchbooks and her paintings, I see a narrative in her life.”
She describes one sketchbook in which Wilkinson seems to have sat on a park bench at Boston Commons and watched a parade of mothers and children drinking from a water fountain.
“I surmise she found something tender or important about that simple act of a child being lifted to drink from a fountain,” Anderson said. “What I get from her work is a tenderness toward the vulnerable.”
Anderson has found no letters written by Wilkinson.
But a letter from the estate attorney George Rogers to Wilkinson one month before he committed her to the asylum advises her to stop living with her companion Fanny and seems to admonish her for spending so much time with her.
There was one remarkable piece of evidence of Edith’s relationship with Fanny, a book that Fanny gave her, signed, “To Edith, Merry Christmas 1900.” It is a children’s illustrated book about Joan of Arc that appears to have been given the year they met.
It also happens to be the same book that Anderson’s spouse Tess gave Anderson 31 years ago when they first met.
Provincetown Discovers Edith
During the gallery show, Anderson said, she was overwhelmed by the reception from the people of Provincetown. She acknowledged the support of Stephen Briscoe of the Larkin Gallery, the gallery owner who agreed to give the show even though none of the paintings would be for sale.
She was particularly enthused by her visit with Chris McCarthy of Provincetown Art Association and Museum, who is interested in acquiring some of the works to add to the museum’s collection of early Provincetown art.
“I can’t believe it. I really didn’t think this was possible,” Anderson said. “Even a year ago, I didn’t think we’d come to Provincetown.”
Anderson interviewed a number of Provincetown art experts including artist Bill Evaul, gallery owner Julie Heller and art collector James R. Bakker, showing them Wilkinson’s work.
“Every time I show it to a new person, they teach me something new and we’re filling in these blanks. I started with a lot of blanks,” Anderson said.
Napi Van Dereck, one of a number of longtime Provincetown residents to attend the opening this week, was enjoying looking at Wilkinson’s paintings of Provinetown streets he knows well, including one of Freeman Street where his restaurant Napi’s is located.
In the background of the painting is a building that Van Dereck remembers was a lumber company on the wharf where wood was off-loaded from ships.
Another building in the painting used to be the Fo’c’sle bar and is now The Squealing Pig bar, he said.
“I always like to see anything with Provincetown history. My [art] collection is based on what it looked like then,” Van Dereck said.
Surveying Wilkinson’s work, Van Dereck said he sees the influence of early Provincetown art teacher Charles Hawthorne in some of them, but of the majority, he said, “These are completely her own imagination.”
“I think she’s wonderful. I love her freedom, very imaginative. They tell a wonderful story about Provincetown. They have an elation,” he said.
He added about the paintings, “I wish I had discovered them.”
Michelle Boyaner of Greenie Films, who is Anderson’s co-director and co-writer of the documentary, said the trip to Provincetown has been one of emotional discoveries as more and more of Wilkinson’s story is uncovered.
Filming those discoveries and Anderson’s reaction to them has been, Boyaner said, like filmmaker’s gold.
“It’s sappy and weepy and it’s wonderful” to see the reactions to Wilkinson’s work by people who know art. “The entire town has reached out and hugged us.”
Anderson said she has long felt a moral and a spiritual obligation to get Wilkinson’s name out into the public because here was a woman whose life and career were cut short.
Anderson, 59, points out that she started the project last year when she was 58, the same age Wilkinson was when she “went into the institution and basically disappeared.”
Anderson said the project came to her one night when she and her spouse were having a dinner party and guests were admiring the paintings by Wilkinson.
“They were so enthusiastic, I said I’m going to do something,” Anderson said.
In an interview a couple weeks before arriving in Provincetown for the show at Larkin, Anderson said there is still a lot of work to do.
“We’re still at the farmers market gathering vegetables and fruit before we start cooking,” she said.
As a playwright and screenwriter, Anderson has been asked why she did not write a movie about her aunt’s story.
She is quick to answer: “I wanted to preserve the integrity of it. It’s just so damn sad. The documentary is going to have a happy ending. We’re getting her back to Provincetown and she’s going to be back in the world again.”
To find out more about Jane Anderson’s documentary, including a short video of the project, go to “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.”
Edith Lake Wilkinson’s one-woman show is at the Larkin Gallery at 405 Commercial Street, Provincetown until October 27.
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– Laura M. Reckford