Thursday, July 23, 2015

PACKED IN A TRUNK: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson

HBO recently showed a documentary of an artist I, and I would gather a great many others had never heard of before, Edith Lake Wilkinson.

Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1868 she was an only child of devoted parents. She showed an early talent for art. Leaving at 20 for New York City to follow her "muse," she enrolled at Columbia School of Teaching as it was known then and became involved with the art community there and taught for a few years as well.

She met another student at Columbia, Fannie Wilkinson, and they became fast friends and many believe lovers. Since they both had the same last name. they posed as sisters.

In 1914 she went to Providence, MA helping to found an art colony there and returned each season until 1923.

In the art colony she became interested in block prints especially the Japanese masters. Each color had to have its own "block" and registration was paramount. Look at a print by Hokusai. Working with local printers she started a style where the block was colored and then pressed onto paper. Known as white line prints it turned out that she had pioneered this technique in Providence a year before a male printer who historically was considered the first to use this method. A German around the same time was experimenting with it as well.

Wilkinson used a variety of media - oil, pastels, block prints, charcoal and watercolor. She had her own style though I saw echoes of early Matisse. She a definite Expressionist bent and was inventive using a variety of subjects. Nothing escaped her sight and talents.

Her parents died in a freak accident at their home when she was 57. The executor of their will was a lawyer who systematically looted her inheritance, said she had dementia having her committed in 1923. She was released nearly a year later. The lawyer had her committed again in 1925 and it was in a asylum where Wilkinson died in 1957 - 30 years of life with no more art. Was she insane? She would have been after all that.

The HBO documentary was written and filmed by her great niece, Jane Anderson, an award winning screenwriter, playwright and film director plus an artist herself. Shown at the Palm Springs Movie festival in 2015 it won a series of awards.

Opening up the trove of art
While the family knew about the trunks of paintings and they were rediscovered in the 60's, some items were removed but most were put back in. They were not opened again until Anderson opened the trunks, saw the paintings and decided there was a story here but more importantly, clearing up the mystery of her great aunt and showing her art to the world.

Wilkinson's pioneering white line art
Part of her journey took her back to Providence where she saw a few pieces of her aunt's art along with her block prints sprinkled after all these years in the local galleries.  One of the discoveries after a hundred years was that her colored block prints was clearly marked 1914, a full year ahead of the person credited with the technique. It is amazing! Here we had an American Expressionist that had been lost.

It was an exciting documentary  of discovery in that an artist who had a tremendous talent, was liked by her fellow artists disappeared almost without a trace. Having no advocate other than her lawyer looting her blind, that she was found and given the one man art show she deserved, 90 years later, is in its own way a miracle.

The niece also has a wife and are raising an adopted son. Anderson's color and subject sensitivities are very similar, eerily so. Before she even knew about her aunt, her artwork used many of the same bright colors and subjects,
only in todays world, not the world her aunt knew. Paired together you have to wonder about genetics! They both have an Expressionist bent using large blocks of color coupled with linework that  accents their work almost as if they were the same person.

Also amazing is that many of the scenes and buildings that Wilkinson painted in Providence are still there but often with new purposes. The market shown (bottom right) is now a gallery and held the first one man show of Wilkinson 90 years later.
The old West End Market is todays Larkin Gallery

We lost a great talent to greed. Here was a woman who was probably gay and more of less suspect because of this. With no family member to step in and be her advocate after her parents died,  she was the perfect target for a ruthless lawyer who in putting her away only had to pay for her care in an asylum that gave her no stimulation while he lived off her inheritance. I think I would begin to lose my mind with day after day of no stimulation. Pictures of the rooms and institutions certainly were nothing like that available today. She was left to linger and I'm sure to hopefully die.

While this was a recent HBO presentation, if you have HBO search for this. I am sure it will be released to other venues if not already. Its an amazing story one of ultimate triumph for human talents.

Thank you for visiting and reading my blog.

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