A Heartfelt Documentary Unpacks the Work of a Forgotten Lesbian Artist

Filmmaker Jane Anderson with Provincetown Art Museum's Christine McCarthy.

Update: As of 4/16/16, this film is now available on iTunes and other video-on-demand sites. 

At the heart of new documentary Packed in a Trunk is a mystery about art and identity. Directed by Michelle Boyaner, the film follows Emmy award-winning writer/director Jane Anderson and her spouse Tess Ayers as they try to understand the mysterious life and art of Anderson’s great aunt, Edith Lake Wilkinson. The filmmakers hope to get Wilkinson the recognition she always deserved, and they focus on how they can bring Wilkinson “back home” to Provincetown, Massachusetts to give her story a happier ending. Packed in a Trunk plays at QDoc, the Portland queer documentary film fest, this weekend and airs on HBO this July.

Within the first ten minutes of the film, we learn a rough timeline of Wilkinson’s life: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, she studied at the Arts Student League of New York, received a degree from Columbia Teacher’s College, and traveled frequently to Provincetown to paint with the Provincetown Art Colony. She had a long-term female companion, Fannie Wilkinson (no relation), with whom she lived in New York. Then, in 1924, a family lawyer, George Rogers, signed Edith Wilkinson into Sheppard Pratt, a sanitarium for the mentally ill, and began to siphon her inheritance into his own pocket. All her paintings and prints were packed away in trunks and shipped to family in West Virginia. Wilkinson spent the remaining 30 years of her life in an asylum, and her artwork remained in trunks until Anderson’s mother found them in the attic years later.

A New York street scene Wilkinson sketched in 1923.

As a kid, Anderson grew up with Wilkinson’s paintings all around her on the walls of her childhood home, and her talented great-aunt fascinated her. The similarities between the two women are a key theme of the film: They both loved drawing similar subjects with similar techniques when they were in New York. Plus, both women are gay. It’s clear that Anderson’s life could have turned out very differently if she had been born a few decades earlier.

“Well when I found out Edith had a ‘companion’ named Fannie,” Anderson says in the film, “I was just coming out as a gay woman myself, so of course my ‘gaydar’ went right up. Not only do Edith and I have this visual vocabulary that’s the same. Oh my God, we’re both gay!”

When Anderson and Ayers visit Sheppard Pratt, the first hospital Wilkinson is admitted to, they learn her initial diagnosis was “paranoid state.” With such a vague diagnosis, Anderson speculates that perhaps her being a lesbian had something to do with her being committed. A note from years later, after Wilkinson was transferred to a different hospital, attempted to better explain her state of mind: “Talks to herself and has numerous unusual ideas. In fact, everything she says in unusual. She is very talkative and imagines everything.” Another note detailing a visit refers to Fannie Wilkinson as Edith Wilkinson’s “friend.”

“I don't think that she was explicitly put away for being homosexual,” Anderson told me in an interview. “But the fact that she was regarded as a ‘single’ woman and Fannie had no marital rights and couldn't really advocate for her made it easier for the male attorney who checked her in to control her affairs.”

edith woodblock

One of Edith Lake Wilkinson's many woodblock prints.

The remainder of the film follows Anderson and Ayers as they work to get Edith Wilkinson’s pieces shown at galleries and museums in Provincetown, and as a result, the film’s viewers learn a lot about Anderson and Ayers’s relationship, too.

“My partner [the film’s cinematographer and editor] Barbara Green and I have been friends with Jane and Tess for nearly two decades,” Boyaner said. “I wanted to tell the story through their eyes and follow them on their journey,” director Michelle Boyaner told me. The core four-person crew of the film all identify as lesbians—which made telling the artist’s story feel all the more significant. “The fact that the four of us are gay women who have the freedom to live our lives openly and Edith never had that opportunity was never lost on us,” says Boyaner.  

“We have the life that Edith and Fannie should have had,” adds Anderson.

Anderson asks a lot of questions about Wilkinson throughout the film that will be difficult to ever answer, like whether or not she was happy on the train on the way to Sheppard Pratt, or if she left any paintings on her apartment walls while she packed all her belongings away. Boyaner said it was important to keep those questions in the film because she knew viewers would be frustrated, like Anderson, with not having all the answers. “At least they’d know that Jane was left feeling the same way,” Boyaner said, “but knowing she did everything she could.”

Packed in a Trunk succeeds in bringing recognition to a talented gay woman who was left out of art history, but it also succeeds in its portrayal of the loving, understanding relationship between Anderson and Ayers. Wilkinson’s art shines even brighter next to their story.

Packed in a Trunk will play at QDoc this Friday, May 15, at the Hollywood Theater. Its HBO broadcast premiere is slated for July 20.

Jess Kibler is a Portland writer and Bitch Media’s New Media intern.

by Jess Kibler
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Jess Kibler is a Portland-based writer, editor, and sad-song collector.

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