Edith Lake Wilkinson
Courtesy of Jane Anderson

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

The Portrait of an Artist, Recovered

Screenwriter Jane Anderson’s great-aunt Edith was a lesbian who was shut away in an asylum—and she was also a talented painter. Now, Anderson is on a mission to get Edith the recognition she deserves.

I’ve been living with a profoundly gifted soul for the past 50 years. Even though she died when I was only 3, I got to know her through her paintings, which were hung on the walls of my childhood home. They now hang in my house in the Hollywood Hills, nearly 3,000 miles away from where she first set up her easel on the East Coast almost 100 years ago.

You’ve never heard of Edith Lake Wilkinson. She disappeared in the prime of her artistic life in 1924, at the age of 57 when she was checked into the Sheppard Pratt asylum outside of Baltimore—a lovely, spa-like place that was also Zelda Fitzgerald’s preferred rest stop for mental recuperation. The reason? Edith’s admittance card contained a one-word diagnosis: paranoia. At the time, Edith was still living with her companion, Fannie, on the Upper West Side. They’d been together for more than 20 years, but Fannie was listed on the back of the card as simply “friend.” After Edith was admitted, Fannie passed away.

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The man who checked Edith into the asylum was the lawyer in charge of doling out her inheritance. He gave her a meager monthly allowance, making her count her pennies, and charged a princely fee to travel to New York City so he could deliver her to the asylum. Once the lawyer had chucked Edith away, he was free to start using her funds for his own enjoyment. When the money in Edith’s estate slowly dwindled, she was eventually moved into a miserable state institution in West Virginia, where she spent the last 24 years of her life locked up in a ward for incurables. The lawyer was eventually caught and disbarred when he made the mistake of ripping off his brother-in-law. Justice was served, but it was too late for Edith. Paranoia, indeed.

During that time, back in 1925, the lawyer had all of Edith’s worldly possessions packed into trunks and shipped back to her hometown in Wheeling, W. Va., where they sat in an attic for the next 40 years, shut tight and collecting dust.

And then my mother showed up.

Some time in the early ’60s, my mother was having one of those bored, restless days, visiting the in-laws. She proposed to my Aunt Betty that they go up to the attic of their house and see what treasures they could dig up. When my mother asked Aunt Betty what was in the trunks, she said, “Oh, I don’t know, just some old junk.” She told my mother that the trunks belonged to Uncle Eddie’s long-forgotten maiden aunt. No one in the family ever spoke about poor Aunt Edith. Being shut away in a mental institution was just something that nice families didn’t talk about. But when my mother opened the trunks, she found dozens and dozens of Edith’s light-drenched canvases tucked in with her moldering clothes. Having an eye for beautiful things, my mother asked Aunt Betty if she could have some of the paintings. Aunt Betty—who was more of an outdoorsy person than a museum-goer—was glad to have my mother to take some of the paintings off her hands.

Edith’s paintings were the backdrop of my childhood. Her palette, her brush strokes, and the quality of light in her landscapes became part of my own visual vocabulary. She taught me that the colors in a shadow are as gorgeous as anything that’s lit by the sun. I painted with her brushes that my mom had retrieved from the trunks. Even though I ended up wrecking every last one of them, but I don’t think Edith would have minded. If you look at the studies she did of children, you can see that she had a soft spot for kids. She even let a child draw a silly duck on the page of one of her sketchbooks. I’m certain she was a gentle, playful, curious soul.

Edith Lake Wilkinson

I moved to New York City when I was 20—the same age that Edith was in 1889 when she left her home in Wheeling to study at the Art Students League of New York. I kept notebooks filled with subway riders, bag ladies, scenes from Central Park and the Lower East Side. Around that time, my aunt and uncle let me root through their closets and drawers for any scrap of Edithphilia that I could find. When I unearthed her sketchbooks, I was astonished to see Edith had been wandering those same streets 60 years earlier, sketching the people she saw: street vendors, immigrant women with their children, uptown ladies arranged on park benches. It was clear that we were visual soul mates. I decided to find out as much about Edith as I could.

My curiosity led me to Provincetown in 1974, where I sought to find traces of Edith in the place where she spent summers filling her canvases with that remarkable Cape Cod light. Armed with slides of Edith’s work, I went from gallery to gallery, begging the owners to “Look! Look at this work!” No one had ever heard of her. And frankly, no one much cared. She was an unknown, and her art had no value.

With a heavy heart, I took a long break from Edith. I had my own career as a writer to worry about. I packed up her work and moved to Los Angeles. Still, years later, her work is still up on the walls of the house that I share with my spouse, Tess, and our son. Edith’s paintings are a witness to my own happy life.

I’m now in my late 50s, the age when Edith was put into the asylum. 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 still productive, and I’m very much loved. I have the life that Edith should have had. And so I’m taken up Edith’s cause once again. But this time I don’t have to carry slides of her work from door to door. I have the miraculous tool of the Web. So I created a site for Edith where the curious can view her work. 

No doubt this world of the Internet would utterly baffle Edith, as the only keyboard she ever saw was on a manual typewriter. But it’s working for her. Word about her has spread. She’s going back to Provincetown in October where she’ll have her first one-woman show in the town where she once lived and thrived as an artist.

And yes, I’m making a documentary about the journey to rescue Edith’s work, Packed in a Trunk, with a Kickstarter to help fund the project.

As I wistfully imagine conversations with her in my mind, I think she would say, “But why bother? My life fell apart. It’s just so damn sad.” And I’d respond, “But that wasn’t the end of it.”

So I offer this toast to you, Edith. Here’s to lifting all the lost and gifted souls of this world out of attics and closets and forgotten rooms. Here’s to being seen.

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