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Lost Legacy Rediscovered

Documentary Sheds Light on Artist 60 Years After She Died in Obscurity

September 22, 2013
By LINDA COMINS Life Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

A lost legacy from a forgotten Wheeling artist's tragic life is being rediscovered as the work of "an artist who deserves to be seen."

Edith Lake Wilkinson died in obscurity at a state hospital in 1954, but her paintings and sketchbooks - stored for decades in a Wheeling attic - paint a portrait of a talented, sensitive artist who studied at a prestigious New York school and created vibrant paintings and prints in New York City and Provincetown, Mass.

Now, nearly 60 years after Wilkinson's death, Jane Anderson - a California writer and artist with ties to Wheeling and to Wilkinson - aims to reintroduce the forgotten artist to contemporary audiences through a new documentary film and an exhibition of Wilkinson's artwork. Anderson also seeks to find other Wilkinson paintings that are believed to be "floating around" the Wheeling area.

Article Photos

A portrait of Edith Lake Wilkinson in New York City in 1889 is shown above, along with a copy of the artist’s distinctive signature on her paintings. The Wheeling native (1868-1954) studied and lived in New York City and in Provincetown, Mass., participating in the Cape Cod community’s vibrant artists’ colony in the early 20th century. She also traveled extensively in Europe.

Anderson, an award-winning screenwriter, playwright and director, is one of four executive producers of the documentary film, "Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson," that is being made about the artist's life and work. The film team visited Wheeling in April and shot footage for the production. Filming also is being done in Provincetown and in Baltimore, where Wilkinson was first hospitalized in a private clinic.

The filmmakers also have established a companion website, www.edithlakewilkinson.com, featuring a chronology of the artist's life and showing several examples of the paintings and drawings that were found in the attic of her nephew's home in Wheeling.

West Virginia art historian John A. Cuthbert is thrilled that more of Wilkinson's work has surfaced. He included information on Wilkinson in his 2000 book, "Early Art and Artists in West Virginia."

Cuthbert said that very few examples of Wilkinson's woodblock prints were known when he was researching his book in the 1980s and 1990s. He first viewed Wilkinson's paintings on Anderson's website earlier this year. "I was really thrilled to see the discovery of so much of her work," he said.

Wilkinson's impressionistic and post-impressionistic paintings were "colorful, skillfully designed works," Cuthbert said.

"She was certainly a very capable artist who created a lot of engaging, well-executed pieces," he commented. "I think a number of them in the website are very appealing in their execution and their subject matter. So, it's a great discovery."

While many of the works shown on the website are oil paintings, it's not known what percentage that medium represents in terms of Wilkinson's total artistic output, Cuthbert pointed out. He said it's possible that she made a lot of prints and sold them for a pittance. Works on paper are more fragile than oil paintings and, thus, are more likely to be damaged or destroyed, he noted.

Anderson was drawn into the story because it was her mother who discovered Wilkinson's work packed away in the Wheeling attic. The filmmaker explained that her father, Reid Anderson, grew up in Wheeling. "We used to visit the relatives every summer," she said.

Her father's sister, Betty Anderson Vossler, and her husband, Edward Vossler, resided in the Anderson family home on Orchard Road. Edward Vossler was Wilkinson's nephew and her last living relative.

On one visit from California in the early 1960s, Anderson's mother, Polly, suggested to her sister-in-law that they explore the attic.

"Mom was quite the antiquer. She always had an eye for beautiful old things," Anderson related. "She opened these trunks filled with dozens and dozens of beautiful paintings. She said, 'My God, do you know what you have here?'

"Aunt Betty let my mother take a bunch of these paintings. I grew up with them as a little girl. I always wondered who this mysterious person was who painted these paintings, who, in essence, taught me to be a painter by osmosis, being surrounded by her incredible color palette and brush strokes."

Anderson added, "Everything was in the trunks. I remember that my mom said all of Edith's clothes were in the trunks and kind of moldy."

The trunks also yielded Wilkinson's paintbrushes which were given to Anderson. "But I was just a kid, and I wrecked them, as kids do. God, I wish I still had them," she mused.

Anderson, "a writer by profession, but also a painter," moved to New York as a young adult to be an actress, artist and writer. "I felt it was my obligation to get her work back to Provincetown," she said of Wilkinson. "I always felt I had the life that Edith should have had."

Anderson now hopes to find additional work by Wilkinson in her hometown. She said, "I would love to put the call out to people in Wheeling to look out for these paintings. Apparently, my Aunt Betty gave away a bunch for a church rummage sale. People in Wheeling might have some of her paintings, charcoals, watercolors."

Anyone who has a work by Wilkinson and/or knows the location of others may contact Anderson by email at janelaloca@ mac.com.

"Edith would come back from New York and teach art in Wheeling, and she's listed in the Wheeling city directory from around 1903 to 1918; she would come back and teach," Anderson explained. "She also advertised in the Wheeling city directory that she was an artist and would do commissions. There must be commissions somewhere.

"I don't have anything in which she painted Wheeling or Wheeling Island. Surely, there must be some somewhere," Anderson said. "I know she loved Wheeling because she kept coming back even though she had this rich life in New York and in Provincetown."

In sharp contrast to Wilkinson's seemingly cosmopolitan lifestyle on the East Coast, her life would be marred, and ultimately destroyed, by tragic events that occurred back in her hometown.

Wilkinson was born in Wheeling in 1868, a daughter of James P. Wilkinson, an accountant and paymaster and Union veteran of the Civil War, and Lucy Lake Atkinson Wilkinson, an artist and native of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her sister, Jane, was born in 1875.

In 1888, at age 20, Wilkinson left home and moved to New York City, where she enrolled in the Art Students League to begin formal training as an artist. In 1900, she entered Teachers College at Columbia University, majoring in fine arts.

She moved to Morningside Heights in lower Manhattan, where she lived with a woman, Fannie Wilkinson (no relation). Anderson learned that Fannie, born in Augusta, Ga., in 1855, had moved to Brooklyn with her family after the Civil War. Her father had fought for the Confederacy.

After meeting around 1900, "Edith and Fannie made several trips to Europe. All artists made that tour to Europe to see the great masterpieces," Anderson said.

The two women lived in an Upper West Side apartment together for 20 years. Little is known about their relationship, but the filmmakers assume that it probably was romantic.

By 1914, Wilkinson was back at the Art Students League and joined the artists' colony in Provincetown on Cape Cod. She spent every summer and fall in Provincetown from 1914-23, producing "dozens of paintings, charcoals and block prints," the filmmakers said.

The block printing movement was started by a group of Provincetown artists, headed by Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), another West Virginia native. The filmmakers said two photos of Wilkinson in Provincetown were found in Lazzell's album.

Anderson said Wilkinson had eight pieces in the Provincetown Art Association's first exhibition in 1915; she exhibited three pieces in the 1916 show and four pieces in the 1920 exhibition. At the Provincetown Art Association's museum, "the archivist showed us the catalog with Edith's paintings listed," Anderson said.

A series of family tragedies began when Wilkinson's sister, Jane Wilkinson Vossler, died in 1907, a year after giving birth to her only child, Edward. In 1922, Wilkinson's elderly parents died of asphyxiation caused by a leaking gas lamp in their Wheeling Island home.

A Wheeling lawyer, who had been put in charge of the family's estate, took control of Wilkinson's bank account. He gave Wilkinson a modest monthly stipend, but he also allegedly embezzled from her funds, Anderson said.

Wilkinson's sketchbook indicates that she continued to be productive as an artist, but what happened next remains a mystery.

In 1924, Wilkinson was hospitalized in the Sheppard Pratt Institute, a progressive mental health facility in Baltimore. The famously troubled Zelda Fitzgerald also was a patient there during Wilkinson's stay.

The Wheeling lawyer "took her (Wilkinson) to the first asylum in Baltimore and signed her in," Anderson said. Many records from the institute were destroyed, but Anderson said they found Wilkinson's admittance card, which listed her diagnosis as "paranoid state."

Later, she was released from the facility for six months, Anderson said. In a January 1925 letter, the lawyer suggested that Wilkinson get her own apartment and live apart from Fannie.

Wilkinson was readmitted to Sheppard Pratt in February 1925 and remained there for 10 years. In July 1925, all of Wilkinson's possessions were packed in trunks and shipped to Wheeling. Fannie remained in the apartment that the women had shared; she died in 1931, at age 76, after returning to Augusta.

Edward Vossler, Wilkinson's only surviving relative, "was eventually put in charge of her estate," Anderson said. After Wilkinson's money ran out, her nephew had her moved to Huntington State Hospital in 1935. "It was notoriously overcrowded ... It was a hellhole," Anderson said.

Wilkinson spent the rest of her life in the West Virginia facility, dying in 1957 at age 89. She was buried next to her parents in Greenwood Cemetery in Wheeling.

Pondering the circumstances that put Wilkinson in a mental facility, Anderson said, "Sheppard Pratt was a very advanced institution. They believed in talk therapy ... They had excellent therapy. If Edith was put in there against her will, I'm sure they would have caught it. It wasn't like one of the state institutions she was put in later on."

Extant records and Wilkinson's personal effects offer no clues as to what may have precipitated her hospitalization.

"If you look at her sketchbook from a year before, there is no indication of any mental illness or depression," Anderson commented. "Her sketchbook is filled with beautiful renderings of people in the Lower East Side, on the Upper West Side. Her color palate was very grounded in reality. It is still a mystery as to why exactly she was put in (a mental institution)."

Edward Vossler died about 15 years ago. "Uncle Edward was a man of his time and didn't have a lot to say," Anderson said. "He told me just a few bits and pieces. He would visit her at Huntington and she wanted him to bring her clothing in a certain green color, a pine green. He didn't really share a lot about her with me.

"I've talked to his son, Dick Vossler, and he said he never really got a lot out of his father about Edith," Anderson added. "My Uncle Edward was a World War II veteran and a man of few words, a good man."

She continued, "You didn't talk about mental illness back then. It was something you kept hidden. It was nobody's business."

Anderson's parents, who are deceased, were still alive when she started to make discoveries about Wilkinson's artistic career. "They were both very excited," she said.

When the filmmakers went to Wheeling Island, they could not find the Wilkinsons' Zane Street address. Anderson suspects that the old house may have been demolished when Interstate 70 ramps were constructed. They did visit the former Anderson/Vossler home on Orchard Road, where Jo Clarke and her son, Brad, now reside.

Nearly a century after Wilkinson's participation in the artists' colony in Provincetown, her work is being celebrated again. Although Anderson's initial efforts were rebuffed, the time is right for other artists to appreciate Wilkinson's contributions.

"When I went back (to Provincetown) in the 1970s when I was a young New Yorker, I went to galleries and no one really cared because she wasn't famous," Anderson said. "Even though she did hundreds of paintings and lived there and thrived there, she was completely forgotten by the town and by the art association.

"But now, either because of the time, or because I was able to create this website and get people interested in her artwork and her story, people in Provincetown are very, very excited about her," she said.

Cuthbert observed that artworks that were comparatively unnoticed 30 or 40 years ago are avidly sought and command high prices now. "There's definitely been a big spike in interest in Provincetown artists and particularly in printmaking," he said.

The art museum in Provincetown is going to hold an exhibition of Wilkinson's work in October. "The art community is very excited about her work," Anderson remarked, "It seems to be just the right time to return her work to Provincetown, which is my ultimate goal. I have no interest in selling her work or making any money off of her work. I'm doing this as a service to an artist who deserves to be seen."

Reflecting on the renewed interest in Wilkinson's art, Cuthbert commented, "I think it's a significant discovery for the field of West Virginia art history. She's a West Virginian and she's a native of Wheeling. It's a great discovery. I hope some West Virginia collector is able to acquire and/or showcase some of her work."

 
 

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