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Fiesty And Talented, She Was Best Known As 'The Nut Lady'

Elizabeth Tashjian, the famed “Nut Lady” who for 30 years ran a nut museum in her rambling Old Lyme mansion and battled unsuccessfully several years ago to keep her home, died Sunday at an Old Saybrook nursing home. She was 94.

A classically trained artist who moved to Old Lyme with her family in 1950, Tashjian painted more than 100 works and sculpted some dozen other pieces in her lifetime. But she found her greatest renown in being “The Nut Lady,” after she opened her Nut Museum — the only one in the country — in 1972 in her 17-room mansion on Ferry Road.

She would give tours of the museum, which housed all of her nut-inspired artwork, and would sing songs along the way for her visitors. Initially, admission to the museum was one nut. Tashjian later increased it to $3 and one nut.

Her unusual vocation caught the media's attention, and Tashjian became a celebrity for a time, making the rounds of talk shows, including the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” to showcase her fascination with nuts.

As age and infirmities set in, however, Tashjian became mired in debt and battled state and local officials to keep possession of her home. In 2002 she was nearly given up for dead after she was found unconscious in her Gothic Revival mansion and later slipped into a coma.

Since Tashjian had no living relatives, a conservator was appointed to oversee her and her estate, even buying a cemetery plot for her in the Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme.

True to her sometimes cantankerous character, Tashjian rallied, emerging from the coma within about a month. But she never went home.

She was deemed incapable of taking care of herself and was sent to the Gladeview Health Care Center in Old Saybrook. From there, she continued her persistent efforts to regain possession of her home. She was heavily in debt, however, and the house eventually was sold in 2003. Most of the money was used to pay off her debts.

Penniless and alone, Tashjian was forced to enroll in the federal Title IX program for the indigent.

A diminutive woman, Tashjian stood just a little over four feet tall. But her spirit made her seem a giant at times, said Don Bernier, an independent filmmaker who produced a documentary about Tashjian several years ago.

Bernier recalled Tashjian taking to task a man who organized an exhibit of Tashjian's works about three years ago. While the man towered over her, Tashjian railed at him because she was unhappy with the restoration of one of her art pieces.

“She seemed so large and he seemed so small,” Bernier said.

Bernier was also the victim of one of Tashjian's outbursts. When he showed his documentary at Connecticut College, Tashjian, unbeknownst to Bernier, left the nursing home to attend the screening. During a question-and-answer segment at the film's end, Bernier said, she stood up in the audience and berated him, telling him she didn't like the way he had portrayed her.

“It was some night,” Bernier said.

Still, he remembers Tashjian with great fondness, saying she was one of the most interesting people he'd ever met. His film, “In A Nutshell,” chronicled what Bernier felt was a fascinating, tetchy and sometimes sweet woman who lived by her own rules.

“It portrayed her as a hero,” he said.

She was known around Old Lyme for being an independent woman who would ride a bicycle around town when she was well into her 80s.

“She would ride her bicycle up and down Route 156, a three-speed with a little basket on the front,” said Timothy Griswold, the town's first selectman. “She'd have her scarf over her head and she'd be peddling away. She was always eager to have people come by and look at her collection.”

Before her home was sold, Christopher Steiner, chairman of the art history department at Connecticut College, arranged to have her art collection brought to Conn. He later worked with Tashjian on an exhibit of her work.

Steiner said Tashjian's affinity for collecting and painting nuts was not a true reflection of her deep and complex talent. The only child of aristocratic Armenian immigrants, Tashjian studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City and had a studio in Carnegie Hall.

“I think her classical drawings were really good,” Steiner said.

Even her “left turn” into performance art with her Nut Museum, Steiner said, was an important part of her overall body of work. Tashjian, he said, seemed to be laughing back at the media culture that reveled in her quirky exhibits, and she raised new questions about the very nature of museums.

Once her home was sold in 2003 and she was confined to the nursing home, Tashjian slipped from public view.

The Fulton-Theroux Funeral Service in Old Lyme is in charge of arrangements. A funeral home official said Tashjian will be buried in a plot in the Duck River Cemetery next to her mother. Though there are no relatives to dictate the kind of service that should be held, the funeral home is arranging a memorial service.
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