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The Artist Of The Nut

Elizabeth Tashjian wants to do for nuts what Cezanne did for apples.

That's the assessment of Lyman Allyn Art Museum interim director Christopher Steiner, who has put together a new show at the museum called “The Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian.'' The exhibition opens Friday, and Tashjian will talk about her art that day at 6 p.m.

The show follows Tashjian's journey from traditionally trained visual artist to avant-garde performance artist.

“It's an incredibly interesting American story,'' says Steiner, who rescued Tashjian's artwork and the contents of the former Nut Museum in Old Lyme after Tashjian fell ill and went to live in a nursing home in 2002.

Tashjian, now 91, studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York City and had a studio in Carnegie Hall.

In 1938, she saw a human face in a Brazil nut. Her painting “The Speaker'' foreshadows her obsession with nuts. In the piece, a cracked nut with a human face inside sits atop a podium and a glass of water waits nearby.

Tashjian moved to Old Lyme in 1950 and became active in the Lyme Art Association. In 1972, opened the Nut Museum. She became known as “The Nut Lady.” Her eccentric flair and unusual subject matter made her a media celebrity, with appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” among other shows.

The Lyman Allyn show features three rooms of Tashjian's art and other paraphernalia, including a one-hour loop of her appearances on TV and a re-creation of the dining room in her Old Lyme home, complete with a table with special-ordered legs shaped like nutcracker handles.

Some of her early works on view include “Self Portrait with Red Hat,'' an oil painting done in 1940, and “Nutcracker Suite” painted in 1937. “Nutcracker Suite” is a pleasant still-life of nuts and nutcrackers engulfed in pretty Armenian silk. She also painted still-lifes of nuts, nutcracker and nut memorabilia. She painted nuts, she says, because they were around the house.

She switched to acrylic paints and created pieces with more vibrant colors, similar to “outsider art,'' according to Steiner. “Outsider art'' generally describes works by artists who have no formal training and a unique style.

“Anyone who knows art can't dismiss her as having no talent,'' says Steiner. “There's a lot of complexity and a lot of talent here. And she's very aware of what she's doing.''

Steiner, who retrieved from Tashjian's house 100 paintings, a dozen sculptures and 50 files boxes of newspaper clippings and notes, says that Tashjian made nut masks, which she hung in her living room. She also created paintings to go along with a song she wrote, “Nuts are Beautiful.''

“She is an original,'' Steiner says.

The opening reception for “The Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian'' is from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 William St., New London. The show runs through June 6. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Call 443-2545.
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