Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson

Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1868, Edith moved to New York by herself in 1888 to study at the Art Students’ League.   During the next 3 decades, she lived on the upper west side with a woman named Fannie, travelled to Europe a number of times, and became a part-time resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Then, in 1924 she was committed to the Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, a sanitarium for the mentally ill; this was quite possibly encouraged by the family lawyer who subsequently siphoned off her funds.  Objections had also been raised to Edith’s “close and constant contact” with her longtime companion Fannie. Since Edith’s only sister had died years earlier and her aged parents had recently died under suspicious circumstances, there was no family left to advocate for her.  Once she was put away, Edith’s work and all her worldly possessions were packed into trunks and shipped off to her nephew in West Virginia where they sat in an attic collecting dust for the next 40 years.  Edith was never heard from again.

Edith’s great-niece, Jane Anderson (Emmy-winning writer & director) grew up surrounded by Edith’s paintings, thanks to her mother who had gone poking through that dusty attic and rescued Edith’s work.  Anderson learned to paint and draw under the influence of her great-aunt’s brilliant, light-drenched canvasses, and Edith’s style became a part of Anderson’s visual vocabulary.  Later, when she moved to New York to pursue her own life as an artist Anderson began a decades-long journey to get Edith’s work back out into the world.

Anderson’s earliest attempts in the 1970s to get some recognition for Wilkinson were met with little success, and she set the project aside as her own life became more demanding.  She and her spouse Tess adopted a son, and her career in film, theater and television kept her working nonstop.  But she always felt that she owed Edith in some way, and a few years ago decided to make Edith’s story a priority.  Working with award-winning documentary filmmakers Michelle Boyaner and Barbara Green, the team began a journey of discovery that took them from Los Angeles to Provincetown, Baltimore, and Wheeling. They track Anderson in her efforts to unravel the mystery of Edith’s buried life, return the work to Provincetown, and have Edith’s contributions recognized by the art world.

During the two-year filming process, a number of surprising facts were revealed about Edith’s own life as well as her connection to the Provincetown Printmakers and significant early 20th-century artists.  Anderson talks to family members, collectors, artists, gallery owners, art experts, and even a psychic in her quest to leave no stone unturned in Edith’s story. 

With a visual style of saturated colors and rich textures, a lyrical score composed for the film by the talented Danielle Ate the Sandwich, and a team that leads from the heart, it explores the meaning of making art, whether one is recognized or not.  It also brings into question the marginalization of people who live outside of societal acceptance, and lets us participate in all of this in a deeply personal and emotional way.  The film examines the parallel lives of two women born almost a hundred years apart.   “I could have been her,” Anderson says, “but 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 now in my late fifties, the age Edith was when she was put away.   I’m still productive and I’m very much loved.  I have the life that Edith should have had.  Edith’s paintings are a witness to my own happy life, and I feel I owe her something.  It’s time to give her story a better ending.”

PACKED IN A TRUNK is about rescuing the work of lost and gifted souls out of attics and closets and forgotten rooms.   It is about being seen.