Currents Long-Form Stories

Finding Edith Lake Wilkinson: After 90 Years, Provincetown Artist Returns

Laura M. Reckford
Written by Laura M. Reckford
Jane Anderson, center, award-winning playwright, screenwriter and director, talks about the work of her great-aunt Edith Lake Wilkinson at the Larkin Gallery last Friday as a documentary crew records the moment.

Jane Anderson, center, award-winning playwright, screenwriter and director, talks about the work of her great-aunt Edith Lake Wilkinson at the Larkin Gallery last Friday as a documentary crew records the moment.

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.

One-Woman Show

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.

Edith Lake Wilkinson painted the "West End Market" during her visits to Provincetown between 1915 and 1923. This week, a one-woman show of her work was on display in the same building, which is now the Larkin Gallery. The tree across the street is also still there, but it is now lush and green.

Edith Lake Wilkinson painted the “West End Market” during her visits to Provincetown between 1915 and 1923. This week, a one-woman show of her work was on display in the same building, which is now the Larkin Gallery. The tree across the street is also still there, but it is now lush and green.

“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.

One of the few surviving photos of Edith Lake Wilkinson shows her on the porch at the home of artist Blanche Lazzell, who is credited with popularizing the white-line woodblock print in Provincetown.The photo was on display in the window of the Larkin Gallery this week where Wilkinson's work was on the display for the first time in 90 years.

One of the few surviving photos of Edith Lake Wilkinson shows her on the porch at the home of artist Blanche Lazzell, who is credited with popularizing the white-line woodblock print in Provincetown.The photo was on display in the window of the Larkin Gallery this week where Wilkinson’s work was on the display for the first time in 90 years.

“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.

A photo from artist Blanche Lazzell's collection shows Edith Lake Wilkinson about to paint a young boy's portrait in Provincetown. The photo was on display at Larkin Gallery where a one-woman show of Wilkinson's work is being shown.

A photo from artist Blanche Lazzell’s collection shows Edith Lake Wilkinson about to paint a young boy’s portrait in Provincetown. The photo was on display at Larkin Gallery where a one-woman show of Wilkinson’s work is being shown.

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.

One of Edith Lake Wilkinson's works painted in Provincetown, where she spent time from 1915 to 1923.

One of Edith Lake Wilkinson’s works painted in Provincetown, where she spent time from 1915 to 1923.

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.

Packed Away

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.

Finding Edith

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.

Wood block print of a barn by Edith Lake Wilkinson

Wood block print of a barn by Edith Lake 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.

A film crew records Jane Anderson talking about her great-aunt's work.

A film crew records Jane Anderson talking about her great-aunt’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.”

Filmmaking Process

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.

Jane Anderson with director of photography Barbara Green of Greenie Films shooting the documentary about Edith Lake Wilkinson in the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Jane Anderson with director of photography Barbara Green of Greenie Films shooting the documentary about Edith Lake Wilkinson in the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

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

About the author

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. She has been a reporter and editor on Cape Cod for more than 20 years in magazines, newspapers and radio. She has also authored numerous Frommer's Travel Guide editions on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

15 Comments

  • Dear CCW, A stirring story, with a very evil villain, the lawyer who had her committed, and a remarkable outcome. The works you show are very sophisticated, and you wonder how the artist who created them could be judged incompetent.

  • With a finding of only paranoia and not schizophrenia, based upon the information in Edith’s story seems to indicate that she wasn’t mentally ill but had hypothyroidism, I.e., a low or non-functioning thyroid gland. which will cause paranoia. Thousands if not millions of people were misdiagnosed in the last century with mental disease when in actuality they had hypothyroidism. I am not a physician but had this experience of paranoia due to a non-working thyroid

  • I saw the movie and was so touched by her life. So glad that her niece has found her work and been able to bring it out for people to see. Amazing and emotional. Thank you Jane Anderson.

  • I was Perusing tv Channels with My Hsband Sayurday Afternoon….we Cam upon the Opening of the Film on HBO,and it Grabbed me from the Start,as I Am an Artist,and I Know much History of Artists in P-town!thank you for your research, VERY Interesting!I’m otherwise Wordless in Appreciation… We Have it Running while I Write!

  • I loved the documentary. I am far from an art critic, but I know when art moves me. I, too, suffer from acute depression, and what I saw of your Aunts work made me feel so happy and alive. The art is priceless! I feel like it is easy for me to identify with her.
    Thank you so much for sharing!!

  • I sat on the couch today waiting for my son to get ready to see a movie. I decided to put the TV on and this documentary caught my eye. I was so intrigued and touched by this documentary and happy at that same time that her niece would go so far in finding the missing puzzle of her extraordinary Aunt and yet so talented artist. I was so happy to see all her display of all her art work that was left behind. Now everyone in the world will see Edith Lake Wilkinson dynamic paintings. I was truly, truly touched. I cried for her. How can anyone treat and hurt a human being and locked them up and leave them to died by themselves. I commend you for your bravery……..Thank you for sharing your story.

  • I cry tears of sadness & now tears of happiness: for Edith finally being respectfully recognized, & honored due to the beauty in her soul reflected in her art!

    Edith Lake Wilkinson now creates ; for the Art Goddess ;somewhere “Across the Universe.”

    Peace & love.

  • i came across this documentary totally by chance. Her work reminded me of the recent Matisse exhibit, and of the work of the Canadian artists in the “Group of Seven,” to be found at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. Her story itself is poignant, showing one more glimpse of the way prejudice can abet deceit in seemingly upstanding people. Her art is so joyful and intense. Thank God for the tenacity of her great-niece. May we all have such angels.

  • Was surfing the Sunday morning channels…came upon the documentary….wonderful and beautiful….Edith wilkinsons art…fabulous!!!i love her artistic talent using bright and beautiful colors…cannot wait to personally view her art….!!!!seems to me others should have been placed in the asylum…..thanks to her neice for her journey…allowing us art lovers to absorb such extraordinarily talent…thanks….

  • Oh, my goodness, I am blown away. What beautiful work, and what a tragedy that she never knew success in her lifetime.
    I too have a great aunt whose story I am writing. It is so important to have these voices heard.
    Thank you so much – I would love to have note cards, or prints of her work.

  • My cousin Frances turned us on to this HBO screening a few weeks ago. She had been so moved by it and posted a few lines on her FB page. Neither my partner Bob nor I had ever heard about Edith, and neither did we have HBO….then. So I googled about her and discovered her Grt-niece Jane Anderson’s journey to tell all about Edith and Fannie and her art and a re-introduction to the world! And yes, we subscribed to HBO… and have now watched this film several times so far. We always tear up. We have a Lesbian community near us here on the mountain and have had some of our friends over to view it, and they are all moved to tears. One older woman had known and counselled women who had been institutionalized like Edith, for being Gay. Thank goodness, they survived and found freedom. In one of my online searches for other info about Edith, I found an Aug.1920 Boston newspaper article about the annual Provincetown costume ball that Edith attended with lots of her friends. She was costumed as Pocahontas.
    And now Edith’s art is known to us and being shown to the world! Thanks to Jane and Tess and all who helped with Edith’s story.

    • Dan! We didn’t have this info about the costume ball and Pocahontas…What newspaper was it in? Do you have a copy or could you tell me how to access it? You are a master researcher and are now officially a member of Team Edith! Thank you for any leads you can throw us. And thank you for the kind words about our documentary. Best wishes, Tess and Jane

  • I was deeply touched by this documentary and moved to tears watching this story about the great artist Edith Lake Wilkinson. I am an art lover and I am always looking for new art to admire. Being an artist myself, I teach young children Art History in the elementary schools for an art program in the Philadelphia area, called, Art Goes To School. It has been a program here for fifty-five years. I tell the children to look at all paintings carefully because they all have a story to tell.
    Jane, you told a wonderful story about your Great Aunt Edith, and it was all done so very well. I even fell in love with the music that was used in the story and have already looked into Danielle’s music.
    Thank you for the wonderful story and getting Edith’s work back out there. She deserves it!
    I hope one day I can teach the children about Edith and show them her work.

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