NEW LONDON — Elizabeth Tashjian, a visual and performance artist who curated and ran the Nut Museum in Old Lyme, is finding her place as an outsider in the art world.
Examples of her paintings and drawings, performances, interviews and nut collection will be exhibited in “Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian” at the Cummings Arts Center and Shain Library from October 21 to December 6.
The show is curated by Christopher Steiner, Professor of Art History and Anthropology at Connecticut College, with assistance from students in the “Bad Art: Looking Beyond the Canon,” a class that’s part of Museum Studies Certificate Program that he directs.
“Elizabeth Tashjian would be horrified that she’s in a ‘bad art’ class. But on day one I said we’re not using the word bad to make a judgement, we’re looking at how the art world creates outsiders and insiders and Elizabeth was definitely an outsider,” said Steiner, in an interview with CT Examiner at his office on October 8.
Tashjian, who was born in 1912 and died in 2007, opened her museum in 1972 on Ferry Road in Old Lyme where she and her mother had lived since 1950. Her mother died in 1959.
Trained at the National Academy of Design, Tashjian didn’t fit the profile of outsider artists, but she didn’t belong with the mainstream art market either.
“When you think of outsider artists, they tend to be rural, poor, and untrained and she was none of those. She was formally trained, she was from New York City, and she grew up with a fair amount of wealth on the Upper West Side,” Steiner said.
She didn’t gain notoriety in the art world, but her museum got picked up by guide books like Roadside America, he said.
“In her lifetime, when the museum was in its heyday, around 1980 to 1995, she would get 10 or 12 visitors a day. People would pull off the highway in Old Lyme, go and get their picture taken wearing a nut mask.”
Tashjian collected nuts and filled her house with them. She made paintings and drawings of nuts. She wrote songs and sang about nuts. She created a tour of the Nut Museum. The sum of her work can be described as performance art, Steiner said.
“I see her both as a visual artist who is a painter but also a performance artist,” he said. “There are some videos of her giving tours … it was a scripted performance and she had lines she would perform.”
For example, Tashjian created nut masks using papier-mâché made with sheet music. At the end of the museum tour, she would put on a mask and ask visitors to identify the nut. Then she would turn the mask over and ask why it was lined with sheet music, quipping, “It’s because nuts bring a note of happiness.”
“This was a scripted line — she had her punchlines if you watch her performances. She also [appeared] on Johnny Carson in 1981 and Johnny adored her and brought her back 30 days later, which was unheard of,” Steiner said, adding that the key object in the collection was this 35-pound coco de mer that looks like the female pelvis that she brought onto Carson’s show.
In the 1980s, a museum visitor reported there were squirrels in Tashjian’s house and the museum was removed from guidebooks because of health and safety concerns. Tashjian said the reports were exaggerated.
“She said, ‘The squirrels are not creating their own exhibit, I’m still the curator,’” said Steiner. “She always had a funny line.”
Many people misunderstood Tashjian’s house as being kind of a natural history museum about nuts, but she said it was an art piece, said Steiner. “She called it a philosophical piece and it was about using these objects to tell these stories.”
Admission to the museum was $1 or one nut. After a man tried to pay admission using his wife — claiming she was a nut — Tashjian changed the mission her museum to rescue people who are considered nutty or marginal to society, Steiner said.
“It’s interesting because you have an outsider fighting for the dignity of outsiders,” Steiner said of Tashjian.
Cabinet of wonder
Not only does Tashjian’s upcoming show introduce the audience to the concept of outsider art, it gets them to think about what a museum is, said Steiner.
“One of the things I teach in my class is the history of museums, which originated in the Renaissance as these ‘cabinets of curiosity” and ‘cabinets of wonder’ and they were basically collections of oddities that people put together in cabinets in their home and then would tell interesting stories about these oddities,” he said. “In some ways I see the Nut Museum as going back to that idea of the ‘cabinet of wonder’ that Elizabeth collected these odd nuts and told interesting stories about the nuts.”
Ginger Miller, an art history/anthropology double major who is also in the museum certificate program, spent the summer sorting through 15-20 banker’s boxes full of Tashjian’s documents, notes, photographs and drawings that will be curated for the show.
“My process was to find those important things that were valuable to the collection and and scan those items — I’ve scanned about 700-800 objects,” she said, as she sat amidst stacks of boxes in the Cummings building on October 8.
Among the items were notes Tashjian wrote about her art, many anthropomorphic drawings of nuts, and a “nut Bible.”
“It’s a little 3 x 3 square that would unfold, with reconstructed stories from the Bible using nut terminology and nut drawings,” Miller said.
The boxes also held many thank you notes from museum visitors, including notes from children embellished with acorns and squirrels.
“One thing that stood out was people saying that her presentation at the Nut Museum really opened their eyes to the nut and made them think it in a new [way] beyond just this kind of snack option — she gave them the inspiration that she gave to them to look at things differently,” Miller said.
Echoing Tashjian’s art and philosophy, working on the show has given Miller a similar appreciation.
“The Nut Museum has opened my eyes to the excitement that can come from art that is not in the canon,” she said.
Art historical activism
It was Steiner’s actions that saved Tashjian’s art, and her belongings have been archived at the college since 2002 when she was found in a coma at her house.
“They took her to the hospital and they thought she wasn’t going to recover and then the state took possession of her house to pay her back taxes and her health care,” Steiner said. “I was told by a friend that this was happening and I went to see the house and was horrified that they were going to sell it with everything in it — her paintings, her papers, the whole thing.”
Steiner said he met with the judge of probate in Old Lyme, who decided that Tashjian’s possessions were to be donated to Connecticut College. “And then we brought it all here — one big truckload and it’s all been in two climate-controlled storage units for 17 years,” said Steiner.
The collection has become a teaching tool on several levels, he said.
“I think it’s great for students because they’re also learning about outsider art and an outsider museum, but they’re also learning the value of historic preservation and what I call art historical activism — that had I not stepped up and tried to save it, whoever bought the house would likely have dumpstered 90 percent of it.”
The significance of Tashjian’s work in the art world is becoming clear, Steiner said.
“When Elizabeth was alive, I saved [her work], but I don’t think I recognized how important it was until now,” Steiner said. “Now that she’s been gone for 12 years, you start to begin to see in the history of museums, in the history of Old Lyme, in the history of art. She really made a statement performing in the Nut Museum, in her cabinet of wonder.”
“Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian” is showing at the Cummings Arts Center and Shain Library from October 21 to December 6. The opening reception is on October 30, with a curator talk at 4:15 p.m. in Cummings 308, followed by a reception at 5 p.m. in the Cummings Arts Center Galleries. @nutmuseum
Steiner will also deliver his talk, “Performing the Nut Museum-Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian,” as the Florence Griswold Museum’s annual Samuel Thorne Lecture at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 2 Ferry Road, Old Lyme on November 9th. Call (860) 434-5542, ext. 111 or email email@example.com to RSVP.