Packed in a Trunk

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It’s bad enough when artists die in obscurity; it’s far worse when they are condemned to live in obscurity for much of their existence. In Packed in a Trunk, which hits DVD and various streaming platforms on April 26, we learn about Edith Lake Wilkinson, whose misfortunes were threefold. Edith had the bad luck to be a woman, an artist, and gay in an era, the late 19th and early 20th century, that had little respect for any of those attributes. After her parents died, Edith had an inheritance, which was allotted to her a little at a time by an unscrupulous family lawyer who had a large degree of control over her. This lawyer discouraged her from living in Provincetown, forever a place of tolerance for artistic gays, and from living with her lover Fannie. Most damagingly, he saw to it that she was admitted to an asylum; Edith spent 32 years locked away, until her death in 1957 at age 89.

Probably none of us would have heard of Edith if not for her great-niece, Jane Anderson, who’d grown up surrounded by Edith’s paintings in her childhood home. Now in her fifties, Jane has a career of writing and/or directing quirkily feminist movies (When Billie Beat Bobby; Normal; The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). Like her great-aunt, Jane is artistic and gay. She feels a connection to Edith, and wants to rescue her from darkness. Her goal is to get Edith’s work shown at a Provincetown gallery; spookily, a gallery owner reaches out to Jane, and his gallery building is the same one that once appeared in a painting of Edith’s.

The title, of course, has dual meanings — not only Edith’s art was packed in a trunk. If she’d been allowed to carry on as she wished, her “white line” wood block technique might have been recognized as innovative and influential. Her work is fresh, unpretentious, and increasingly colorful as she found her groove in Provincetown, surrounded by all that Cape Cod beauty. The movie, however, doesn’t really try to recast Edith as a LGBT martyr. Jane Anderson doesn’t want to wallow in the unfairness of what happened to Edith; she wants to air Edith’s work, let it speak loudly and beautifully for itself. And it does; many people come to see the paintings, many more will see them via the movie, and all that will be remembered of her attorney and persecutor is that he was a bastard. Posterity wins this time.

Packed in a Trunk is sometimes a little iffy technically — it has occasional problems with camera focus. But the essence of Jane’s mission stays clear and readable, and we are pleased to see the Provincetown community’s embrace of its lost daughter. As luckless as Edith’s life seems to us, there is also a fair amount of good luck: here was a woman whose work happened to wind up in the home of a girl who would grow up into a position to rehabilitate Edith’s reputation. How many other artists, male or female, white or otherwise, have been denied us forever because they were gay in the wrong place and time, and did not have a distant relative to tend to their work a century later?

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