January 28, 2020

A View from My Porch: The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian (Connecticut’s “Nut Lady”)

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome a new columnist to our LymeLine family today. Tom Gotowka will write an occasional piece under the title, “A View From My Porch,” and we are going to let him introduce both his column and himself in his own words.  We hope you enjoy Tom’s offerings — as always, let us know your thoughts!

Author’s Note: “A View from My Porch” is a new column that will cover a range of subjects that I believe will be of community interest. It might be literature and the arts, an event, or even something to do with healthcare. I may occasionally stray into a political issue, but this column will not be partisan political (Other publications have that more than covered.) In reality, all I see from my porch is my wife’s studio, a red barn, a network of beautiful gardens, and a salt marsh, but, of course, “a view” is so much more than what one actually sees.

To give you a sense of the experiences that “qualify” me to write this column, my entire adult career has been in healthcare. I’ll sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. I always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. I enjoy reading historic speeches and consider myself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK. A child of AM Radio, I probably know the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960.

My first few columns will take a fresh look at some of Old Lyme’s cultural and historic icons. As such, this first essay is titled “The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian”. The second column covers Naval hero Ezra Lee.

Eliazabeth Tashjian appeared several times on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson.

The Second Renaissance of Miss ElizabethTashjian (Connecticut’s “Nut Lady”)

Connecticut College’s exhibition, “Revisiting the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian,” has just closed. I posit that this gallery display of her paintings, drawings, and sculptures, together with the recent Florence Griswold Museum Samuel Thorne Memorial Lecture by Professor Christopher Steiner, “Performing the Nut Museum,” represent the culminating events in this “second Renaissance.” Let me walk you through the facts that led me to this conclusion.

I was introduced to Elizabeth Tashjian more than a quarter century ago (holy cow!) by Colin McEnroe, who now hosts his own show on CT Public Radio and writes a weekly column for Hearst Communications. My wife and I were not yet residents of Old Lyme. This essay begins with a synopsis of her life. However, the crux of this column is my assertion that she became masterful at managing the media, and playing the role of quirky, eccentric artist.

Miss Tashjian was born into privilege in Manhattan in 1912, the daughter of wealthy Armenian immigrants. Her parents divorced when she was 7 years old, and she continued living in Manhattan with her mother. She showed great promise as a concert violinist and pursued music early — and before pursuing her interest in art. She studied at the New York School of Applied Design for Women and the National Academy of Design.

Elizabeth and her mother moved into a 19th century Gothic Revival mansion on Ferry Road in Old Lyme in 1950. Her mother died in 1959 and she continued living there alone. Her father pre-deceased her mother and left no estate.

Nuts were always her passion. This began during her classical arts training in New York City, where she created many paintings of nuts and nutcrackers. These themes would continue throughout her life. She was an active member of Lyme Art Association and frequently displayed her works there.

In 1972, she opened the Nut Museum, which was housed in the dining room on the ground floor of her home. The Nut Museum collection was largely comprised of her own artwork, including over 100 paintings, 20 aluminum sculptures, nut jewelry, and a Nativity scene made completely of nuts. Her art has been described as “visionary”, “avant-garde”, “surrealist”, and/or “outsider.”

She remained unmarried throughout her life. I could not find any reference to any real employment, which allowed her to concentrate wholly on her art. Like her mother, she became a Christian Science healer in mid-life, which may have provided some modest income.

Susan Campbell, writing in the Hartford Courant, described her visit to the Nut Museum: “The first time I met Elizabeth Tashjian, she swooped down the stairs of her Old Lyme mansion to greet me, and I was immediately in her thrall. I remember there was a cape.”

In 1981, Tashjian appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” for the first time. She and Carson “clicked” and her success with him led to many other television appearances, including Letterman, Leno, and others. Her TV appearances usually included one of her songs (e.g., “Nuts Are Beautiful” or the “March of the Nuts.”)

She did not have the same rapport with the other hosts that she had developed in her two appearances with Carson. She often brought a 35-pound coco de mer nut with her to these appearances. The coco de mer, or “nut of the sea” is native to the Seychelles and has an unfortunate resemblance to a woman’s buttocks. She told Carson that “the existence of such a sexually provocative nut utterly refuted Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” Professor Steiner (see below) said “it was arguable whether she was exploited by the media, or exploited it.” His suspicion was that she was the joker, not the joke.

She became known as the “Nut Lady”, which she hated. Preferring words like enthusiast, advocate, culturalist, or visionary.

Miss Tashjian became increasingly reclusive from the mid-1990s through the turn of the century; and her health began to fail. Fortunately, she had found a “champion” in Christopher Steiner, a professor of art history and museum studies at Connecticut College, who was determined to protect her artistic legacy. He remained her supporter and advocate for the rest of her life.

By 2002, she was nearly indigent, in serious debt, and very frail. I won’t provide the terrible details; but she fell into a coma, was declared incompetent, and a ward of the State. The Courts put her house on the market to pay her debts. Despite refusing medical treatment because of her religious beliefs, she recovered, but was confined, apparently against her will, to a nursing home where she died in 2007.

The contents of the Nut Museum had been removed by Professor Steiner while her home was being sold. He had successfully petitioned the Old Lyme Probate Court to recognize the historic and artistic significance of the collection. Unfortunately, Tom Selleck and Henry Winkler were not yet pitching reverse mortgages as financial salvation for the indigent elderly.

And so, begins her “second Renaissance.”  In 2004, the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London launched a show of her work at which she was the guest of honor. Documentary filmmaker Don Bernier completed “In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian,” a feature-length video about the artist highlighting the diverse roles she assumed during her lifetime, which debuted at Connecticut. College.

Her obituary appeared in the New York Times Food Section in 2007: under the heading,“Elizabeth Tashjian, 94, an Expert on Nuts, dies,” which would have certainly appealed to her sense of irony.

The New Yorker carried “The Nut Lady Returns” in 2005.

The Armenian Weekly provides a detailed account of the Connecticut College exhibition.

Lee Howard’s recent article in The Day, “Reimagining the Nut Lady and her Art,” provides a friend’s perspective:

Share

Comments

  1. Michaelle Pearson says

    Congratulations on your new column, Mr. Gotowka, and for this article on the rediscovery of the art of Elizabeth Tashjian. I would like to direct your readers to the book, “Remarkable Women of Old Lyme” written by myself and Jim Lampos, which contains a chapter on Ms.Tashjian, and includes many details of her interesting life and work. –Michaelle Pearson

  2. Great article! Wonderful to have a new columnist featuring things of interest to the Old Lyme community.

  3. Catherine Walsh says

    Fascinating! Looking forward to many more of your articles about Old Lyme and beyond!

    Catherine Walsh

Speak Your Mind

*