Lost and Found: The Life of Artist Edith Lake Wilkinson

Sandra Bertrand


Most of us have had the experience of rummaging around a relative’s attic, opening an old trunk, and emerging a little later with some cobwebs and a chipped plate or forgotten teddy bear—if we’re lucky. But in Jane Anderson’s film about her great-aunt, Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, a treasure trove of remarkable early 20th century art, hidden away for over 40 years, comes to light.  And thanks to the efforts of the filmmaker, another artistic genius is rediscovered.  


The film is really the story about one woman’s life-long obsession with the enigmatic Edith.  Anderson is an Emmy-award winning writer and director, most recently known for her adaptation to TV of the novel Olive Kitteridge.  As an on-screen narrator, she has a quirky, energetic, elfin-like quality that entreats us to share her passion.  From the moment Anderson’s mother poked into a dusty trunk in West Virginia and unearthed the luminous sketches and paintings within, the young Anderson was enchanted.  She learned to draw and paint from these light-drenched canvasses.  Over the ensuing decades, she was determined to track down the details of Edith’s life—her colorful and unconventional existence as a lesbian in the flourishing art colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts, then tragically, her commitment to a notorious mental asylum for the rest of her life.


Was Edith insane?  From Anderson’s investigation, it seems unlikely.  But it appears that after the death of Edith’s parents, a wily family lawyer siphoned off a half million dollar inheritance, doling out a small monthly allowance to the artist.  He threw suspicions on the close relationship she shared with her companion Fannie, and a “temporary” incarceration ensued.  One can only wonder how many young women of that day were relegated to a life out of sight and forgotten under various questionable diagnoses of dementia and paranoia. 



When Anderson and her own spouse Tess interview current residents in Provincetown, it seems clear that Edith was a victim of her times.  As the artist Sally Brophy remarked about Edith’s fate, “Who had the leverage, money or time to get her out?” 


One of the inspiring aspects of the film is the number of individuals who are quick to embrace or recall the times and flavor of the places that Edith so clearly captured.  She clearly and brilliantly expressed herself through her art.  Daily domestic scenes, though often sketchy, are often reminiscent of the intimate art of a Mary Cassatt.  Her landscapes have a slightly more sophisticated draw of a Grandma Moses.  Archival photo stills are interspersed and give the viewer a real sense of the bustling scene.  Over 600 artists would summer in turn-of-the-century P-Town to paint their impressions of what was decidedly an artist’s paradise. 


Anderson and Tess busy themselves with painting the walls green at the Larkin Gallery for Edith’s first show in over 90 years and the reception is obviously a successful one.   Along with the exhibit preparations, Anderson finds out through a letter that one of the town’s history buffs shares, that before Edith’s incarceration, she was planning a trip to Paris. She had big plans for her future. Another rather humorous event is a visit Anderson pays to a local psychic who supposedly “channels” Edith, relating how the woman “loved to party and made a lethal rum punch.”


Overall, the documentary has been lovingly assembled by Anderson and her co-director and producer Michelle Boyaner, with the help of cinematographer Barbara Green.  Though a highly personalized story, one that asks us to go along on the hunt sharing its often emotionally-charged underpinnings—the journey is worth it.  This is thanks largely to Edith’s tremendous, heretofore unrecognized talent.  As Anderson confesses to the viewer, “If there’s anyone else to be rescued, go ahead!” 


PACKED IN A TRUNK: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson debuted April 26, 2016 on iTunes, Vimeo On Demand and all digital platforms and general retail rental.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine®

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