Reimagining the Nut Lady and her art
My first contact with Elizabeth Tashjian occurred 40 years ago — not in her famous Old Lyme Nut Museum but on Lyme Street, where she regularly could be spied on a black bicyle straight out of the witch in "The Wizard of Oz" pedaling madly back and forth to the local library.
"Who is that lady?" I inquired at Town Hall.
"Oh, that's the Nut Lady," came the instant reply along with the usual knowing winks and circular hand motions indicating it was an apt name for someone more than a little cuckoo. The Nut Lady, it was said, refused to pay for photocopies at the library because of her celebrity status.
But of course I had to make up my own mind about this diminutive but headstrong artist, someone I later learned had been on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" more than once. So I soon called Tashjian to get a tour of her museum, thinking it would be a quirky story.
I can't remember if I wrote anything, since by now she had received more than her fair share of ink, but Tashjian and I became fast friends. I loved her oddball humor, stories about coming from Armenian royalty and the child-like exuberance she had for all things nut-related, including her "Nut Anthem" that she would regularly sing for anyone I brought over the house, which was, of course, also the nut museum.
One time, Tashjian invited me and a former girlfriend over for dinner, and we had a wonderful home-cooked meal of stuffed peppers along with a lively conversation that focused, of course, mostly on her. It was clear to me that Elizabeth Tashjian was more than a little quirky, especially when she went on and on about the squirrels who regularly invaded the upper regions of her home, but she also was a highly intelligent and talented artist.
Evidently, Connecticut College art professor Chris Steiner agreed, because, with the artist's blessing, he and a few friends loaded up a U-Haul truck with much of her legacy when Tashjian was forced out of her home in 2003. With virtually no source of income, she had run out of money and could no longer afford to pay various debtors to keep the Nut Museum open.
"I'm glad we were able to save the collection," Steiner said. "If we hadn't got permission to go in, 90 percent of it would have ended up in the dumpster."
And now, for first time since she died a dozen years ago, Tashjian is being celebrated with a local exhibit. "Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian" opens Monday and runs through Dec. 6 at Cummings Arts Center Galleries at Conn College. The official opening reception will be at 5 p.m. Oct. 30.
"She was an exceptional artist," Steiner, an Old Lyme resident himself, said in an Oct. 8 interview at his campus office. "There were elements of genius in her work and in her performance."
Steiner said this exhibit started with a course he is teaching on art outside the mainstream. The 16 students in the course are helping to curate the exhibit, while another, junior Ginger Miller, 20, spent the summer on a fellowship digitizing about 800 images of Tashjian's artwork, sketches, photos, newpapers articles and notebooks.
"It was an exciting thing to open a box and not know what was in there," Miller said. "Some boxes still had plaster from her house in them."
The Tashjian retrospective will include paintings, drawings and sculptures that she created from the 1930s through the 1990s. It also will include a faithful re-creation of the famed Nut Museum exhibition room with the original furnishings, art and other displays that were saved from her home.
In another exhibit area at Cummings, Tashjian's appearances with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Roseanne Barr, Howard Stern and others will run in a continuous loop. The performances will feature both of her known nut songs, including "Nuts Are Beautiful."
"This will let people see her as a performance artist as well," Steiner said.
In addition, Conn College's Shain Library will be hosting a related exhibit of Tashjian's family photographs and personal memorabilia.
Steiner sees Tashjian's Nut Museum as harkening back to the origins of museums, which often featured curiosities and oddities similar to "Ripley's Believe it or Not" to entice the public to pay for admission. He believes Tashjian was just as resourceful in her TV performances, and he has notes clearly indicating the artist had thought out many of the funny lines she so "spontaneously" delivered to Carson and others.
"Carson was a great performance," Steiner said. "Leno didn't really get her or understand her."
Tashjian's aim, as she once put it, was "to do for nuts what Cezanne did for apples," Steiner recalled.
"Her mother was a strong influence," he added. "Her mother used to say you had to try to be original and good. She wanted to do something that had never been done before."
According to a timeline of her life put together by Steiner and others, Tashjian was born into a distinguished New York City family in 1912. Her father was a wealthy businessman specializing in expensive rugs, but Tashjian's parents soon divorced.
She went on to study at the National Academy of Design, where her obsession with nuts apparently began with a series of still-lifes. Tashjian moved into a 17-room Victorian mansion in Old Lyme with her mother in 1950, but her mom soon died, leaving her the estate off Ferry Road but no clear path to a career.
Tashjian joined the Lyme Art Association, regularly showing her work but garnering few sales. Always hungry for recognition and frequently in need of money, she called up The Day in April 1972 to announce she was opening a Nut Museum in her home, news that elicited much laughter but brought a reporter to her door the next day, Steiner reported.
Tashjian once remembered the opening day as cold and blustery, and she said the reporter sent out to cover the event soon became entangled in a giant foam-rubber nut dangling from a tree — an image that no doubt delighted her.
Initially, admission to the museum was $1 or one nut.
Though she never married, Tashjian loved to play with sexually suggestive double entendres in her work and her performances, noting how the shapes of some nuts resembled a woman's pelvis and joking that her trivet-making prowess made her a "hooker."
She once famously decided that Darwin must have been wrong, and the origin of our species was actually her artistic obsession. "Out with apes, in with nuts!" she'd say with bravado to anyone who would listen.
Tashjian's original intention may have been to highlight the physical beauty of nuts, but as time went along, she also became a defender of the spirits of those branded as human nuts.
“I set out to remove the demerit marks from the word 'nut,'" she once said. "My painting then used the power of art to make social commentary.”
Steiner noted one surprising element of the upcoming exhibit: sketches of Tashjian's plans for a nut theme park that "would put Disney Land to shame." All the rides would have been nut themed, of course, including a train and its "chew-chew" station.
This isn't the first time Tashjian's art and life were honored in an exhibit. In 2004, only a year after her nut museum property was sold, the Lyman Allyn Museum launched a Tashjian show at which the elderly artist was guest of honor, and dozens of friends and acquaintances gave her a last hurrah. At the same time, "In a Nutshell," a movie about her life, debuted at Connecticut College.
Steiner, the man who saved Tashjian's legacy after a judge gave him only two hours to take material out of her house, has been storing about 150 paintings, 200 drawings, 20 sculptures and dozens of boxes of documents and photographs, not to mention all the furniture and displays from the original nut museum, ever since.
But that wasn't enough for Tashjian, who browbeat Steiner not long after the Lyman Allyn exhibit, thinking her work deserved an even wider audience.
"I had nothing to offer," Steiner said. "She was lashing out at everyone."
She died in 2007 at an Old Saybrook nursing home at age 94, devastated that her art would never be more than a local phenomenon during her lifetime.
Steiner said that Tashjian understood she was being laughed at for her nut obsession, which may have been why she particularly enjoyed introducing young students to her work.
"They were not jaded," he said. "They were open to new ideas."
And while Tashjian was aware that she was often the subject of ridicule, Steiner believes the artist never used her Nut Lady reputation as a shtick, as just a way to gain her 15 minutes of fame.
"I kept waiting for her to pull the curtain back, but it never happened," he said. "I think it was just who she was."
If you go
What: "Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian"
Where: Cummings Arts Center Galleries & Shain Library, Connecticut College, New London
When: Through Dec. 6
Opening reception: 5 p.m. Oct. 30; curator talk, 4:15, Cummings 308
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1–4 p.m. Galleries are not open to the public Nov. 26–Dec. 1.
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