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An artist's life, in a nutshell

When the phone rang in The Day's newsroom on the evening of April 21, 1972, whoever picked up received strange tidings: The caller announced that the next afternoon, a nut museum would open in Old Lyme.

"Could you spell the first word of the museum?" the puzzled editor asked.

"N-U-T," the caller responded and hung up.

A headline soon proclaimed, "Unique museum opens, but what a nuthouse!"

Thus was launched the singular career of Elizabeth Tashjian, the self-styled visionary known to the world as "the Nut Lady."

An exhibition at the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs marks the 50th anniversary of Tashjian's zany institution, which had a 30-year run, and explores the life of its off-kilter creator.

"Remembering the Nut Museum" features most of Tashjian's nut-inspired art and clips of her memorable TV appearances. It also reassembles the dining room of her Victorian home, the museum's main space.

Visitors can peruse everything from Tashjian's painting of two nuts shaking hands to creations like "the Mask of the Unknown Nut" to human shapes cut from sheet metal and enhanced with coconut-shell breasts.

Nut aficionados, if any, will be engrossed, but the real story is that of Tashjian, a trained artist who inexplicably devoted her life to celebrating earth's bounty of dry, single-seeded fruits. Who was this woman?

Tashjian was born in New York City in 1912 to a family of Armenian immigrants. She attended the National Academy of Design and had two shows of her work. Unmarried, she moved to Old Lyme and after her mother's death became a recluse in her home.

Nuts make scattered appearances in her early art, such as a 1936 painting titled "The Villain," which portrays an abject group of chestnuts cowering before an evil nutcracker.

But most of her works from that era are, well, normal. The exhibition includes several self-portraits, including one in which she stands holding a violin. There's also a landscape of a bridge in Central Park.

None of this explains the blinding artistic revelation Tashjian experienced in 1972, when nuts became her primary muse.

"I remember being in the kitchen late at night, with all the lights blazing, and suddenly it came to me," she later said. "I can't tell you what it was like. I thought I was going crazy. These artists that do these things, do it with drugs. But I got there on my own. I really took off with this one, and went to Mars!"

In addition to establishing the museum, she produced a series of works that showed nuts in human form. She also wrote two songs, "The March of the Nuts" and "Nuts Are Beautiful," which she would sing for anyone who asked in a high, quavering voice that seemed to come from a Victrola horn.

Tashjian presided over her dining room shrine in a purple gown and charged an admission fee of one nut (any variety). This entitled visitors to hear her ruminations on topics like the cashew, which grows accompanied by a pear-shaped fruit; or the betel nut, which can be chewed in 40 different ways.

The crown jewel of her collection was a 35-pound specimen of the coco de mer, the world's largest and rarest nut, growing on a single island in the Indian Ocean. She was fond of observing that it resembled a naked female pelvis, which indeed it did.

She would also offer pithy observations like this: "Although they are natural enemies, at the Nut Museum nutcrackers and nuts live in harmony."

Word spread of her eccentric ways, and she was soon a media star, stumping the panel on "To Tell the Truth," a nationally syndicated TV show, as early as 1973.

Tashjian's new identity was a remarkable transformation from that of the quiet artist whose detailed painting of a nut cross-section once prompted a New York critic to wonder, "Is she serious?"

Christopher Steiner, an art history professor at Connecticut College who is curating the exhibition, asked himself a similar question the first time he met Tashjian. Convinced that her public persona was an act, he kept waiting for her to drop it and be herself. But as he came to realize, Elizabeth Tashjian and the Nut Lady were one and the same.

Steiner never made it to the Nut Museum, but he entered the picture at a crucial moment. In 2002, at age 89, Tashjian was found unconscious and ended up in a nursing home, where she lay in a coma.

The Old Lyme probate court ordered her house sold. But Steiner, who teaches museum studies, successfully petitioned the court to donate the contents to Conn so they could be preserved.

Tashjian then surprised everyone by waking up. Her fury over losing her home was mitigated by Steiner's efforts to save her work, and the next year she was the subject of a show at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

Steiner, who is writing a book about Tashjian, sees her endeavor in the context of ephemeral museums, which began in the Renaissance as "cabinets of curiosities," collections of interesting objects put on view by rulers, aristocrats and others.

Many were in people's homes, and the practice has continued in our own times. A century ago, Charles Q. Eldredge of Mystic opened a private museum behind his house that contained 7,000 random items he had collected, including a whale skeleton, a medal from the coronation of King George III and relics of various wars. There were even some nuts.

Tashjian's museum was of that tradition and started appearing in guides to roadside attractions as soon as it opened, Steiner said. But unlike the International Banana Museum or the World's Largest Ball of Twine, it had a message and a heart, he said.

Both radiated from the inscrutable personality of the proprietor, who died in 2007 at age 94. Steiner has tried to puzzle out what made Tashjian tick, but "I think it's really complicated."

He did 50 hours of interviews and learned, for example, that she considered her father, a rug merchant who divorced her mother when Tashjian was 7, a nasty man. She recalled beatings, which Steiner said may explain why she stayed single.

As for her fascination with nuts, she drew on her Armenian heritage, often pointing out that many nuts grow in that part of the world. Her signature purple robe was her grandmother's wedding gown from the old country.

Steiner also thinks she used nuts as a way to talk about her Christian Science faith. She would note that nuts grew in the Garden of Eden, and elements of the religion's theology were present in her interviews, he said.

Tashjian forged a career as an outsider artist, which Steiner considers unique for someone who came from wealth and had formal training.

By some mysterious alchemy, all of this combined to produce the Nut Lady.

"It was a performance but a performance that was her, not a character she had invented," Steiner said. The tentative title of his book is "Performing the Nut Museum."

Tashjian disliked being called the Nut Lady and didn't want to be thought of as crazy, even as she riffed on the various meanings of "nut," including the psychological sense, he said.

This was part of her interview routine in national television appearances. On "The Tonight Show" in 1981, she told Johnny Carson, "I feel you can never be lonely when you have nuts around." She then pulled out the coco de mer, and Carson, eyeing its feminine curves, deadpanned, "You're never alone if you have this nut."

Steiner said the interviews degenerated over time, and some later hosts were so rude that he didn't include them in the exhibition's highlight reel.

To some degree, he said, Tashjian was aware she had been exploited. In recounting her phone call to The Day the night before the museum opened, she told Steiner the person on the other end chuckled when she spelled out the word "nut."

"That's where the laughter began," she said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

If you go

What: "Remembering the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian"

Where: The William Benton Museum of Art, 245 Glenbrook Road, Storrs

When: Through March 11

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Admission: Free

Information: https://benton.uconn.edu. Note pandemic restrictions.

Related programs via Zoom:

Tuesday, March 1: Film screening of "In a Nutshell"

Tuesday, March 8: "Art & Artifact: Collecting in Practice," an interactive workshop

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