The Light of Day

Published in: September-October 2016 issue.


Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson
Directed by Michelle Boyaner
Greene Films and Little Mama Productions







PROVINCETOWN PAINTER Edith Lake Wilkinson (1868-1957) had been lost to history since 1924, the year in which she was admitted to Sheppard Pratt, a private psychiatric hospital near Baltimore. It’s probable that the admission was orchestrated by her lawyer, who seems to have been intent on emptying her very substantial bank account. She died at a state mental hospital in West Virginia. Fortunately, all of her artworks and sketchbooks had been safely packed away in a trunk in the attic of relatives. It was Wilkinson’s great-niece, Jane Anderson, a writer and director for HBO, who rediscovered Wilkinson’s art, literally packed in a trunk. This documentary, directed by Michelle Boyaner, is part of Anderson’s effort to restore her Aunt Edith to her rightful place among Provincetown artists.

As a young woman, Wilkinson left her home in West Virginia to study at the Art Students League in New York and at Columbia Teachers College, after which she taught art at schools. Some of her sketchbooks are filled with vigorous images of people and places in New York: Harlem, the Village, the Lower East Side. She met a somewhat older woman named Fannie M. Wilkinson (no relation, apparently), and they moved in together. Anderson, herself a lesbian, makes a persuasive case that both Miss Wilkinsons were lesbians, too. Anderson’s deeply rooted connection to her great aunt comes across as entirely genuine, and the tears she sheds when she finds validation of Wilkinson’s talent are quite moving.

Wilkinson produced beautiful art during the summers she spent in Provincetown, and she participated in major exhibits, both there and in New York. Her Provincetown work includes vibrant still lifes, streetscapes—a number of the buildings she depicted still stand—portraits of friends and fellow students, and what appear to be “mudhead” portraits, a method using just light and shade without facial details. Wilkinson also produced some beautiful white-line prints, and history may have to be rewritten: until Wilkinson’s rediscovery, the first known white-line prints had made their appearance in 1915. However, hers date to 1914. No doubt scholarly research will need to be done to verify this, but it is exciting to imagine a revision of the historical record.

Several noted Provincetown artists and historians were interviewed for this film, including Christine McCarthy, executive director of the Provincetown Art Association Museum (PAAM), who said that she was very impressed by Wilkinson’s “stunning body of work.” Two of Wilkinson’s works (along with a photo of Wilkinson with two fellow artists) were included in a 100th anniversary exhibit at PAAM, and Wilkinson was the subject of a one-woman show at the Larkin Gallery on Commercial Street. Packed in a Trunk veers off-course when a psychic declares that Wilkinson had found a new love, Emily, during the summers when Fannie had not accompanied her to Provincetown. Also, one might have wished for a little more information about Wilkinson’s friends and fellow artists. Minor quibbles aside, this is a lovely film that will, with any luck, restore an unjustly forgotten artist to her rightful place.