“Packed In a Trunk” profiles the lost art of lesbian artist Edith Lake Wilkinson

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Have you ever wondered about that old trunk in the attic and what might be in it? Prepare to be moved. Packed In a Trunk, a new HBO documentary coming July 20, is packed in laughter, tears and a yearning to make what was once lost so much more than found.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jane Anderson knew she had to do one thing: She had to take her great aunt Edith Lake Wilkinson back home to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her artwork, that is. Edith’s art was her whole life—she sharpened her craft in the early 1900s when she was living in an art community that was not only thriving, but was inventing and inspiring new forms of art to emerge—Edith was perhaps the first of her community to use the “white line” wood block technique, but was never credited in history books after she went away. And never came back.

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Edith was committed to an insane asylum by the 1920s where she carried out the remainder of her life. The worst part is it’s highly likely she was locked up because she was thought to be a lesbian—and they were right becaucse she was a lesbian!

The parallels between Edith and Jane are rooted in their art. Jane grew up with Edith’s art around her and began to pick up painting as a result.

“Jane has been telling queer stories, groundbreaking stories in her career for decades, too. So, it’s kind of magical to be able to have the chance to tell her story,” director Michelle Boyaner said.

The cosmic connection that bridges these two artists, family members, and women evolves throughout the filming even more—and the findings are jaw dropping. Jane and her partner Tess Ayers set out to give Edith back her life—the ways Tess not only supports but digs her heels into the same emotions of success and failure that Jane experiences is the propellant that keeps their spirits high. In the process of uncovering Edith, they discover a shocking secret or two and make big revelations about what this time must’ve been like for a lesbian artist.

“During the nearly two years of production, the parallels of our lives and Edith’s were never lost on us. The four of us were all gay women who had the freedom to live our lives openly and we were constantly aware of the fact that Edith never had that opportunity,” Michelle said.

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At this year’s QDoc—the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival, director Michelle Boyaner was joined by Jane (also a co-writer and executive producer), Tess and Michelle’s partner, cinematographer, editor and executive producer Barbara Green, plus co-writer and executive producer Jane Anderson, and her partner, executive producer Tess Ayers were in attendance. Their presence was as powerful onstage as it was onscreen.

AfterEllen had a chance to speak exclusively with Michelle after their QDoc showing, where she explained that her partner Barbara and she have known Jane and Tess for 20 years. It was a few years ago when Jane approached them to help her make this film.

“Jane was really ready to try again to get Edith out into the world, they asked us if we’d be interested in doing a documentary about Edith,” Michelle said.  Jane had previously tried to go to Provincetown in the ‘70s with tiny slides of Edith’s work to no avail but no one took her seriously. Now maybe they would.

“We talked about it and, of course, Edith’s story was heartbreaking and we were definitely ‘on board’ to do something, but told them that the film I’d like to make would actually follow them on their journey to uncover the mysteries, to try and find out what happened to Edith,” Michelle said.

But this took some convincing. She knew Jane and Tess so well that she just knew people would become “emotionally invested” in their journey. So finally, they became more comfortable with the idea of being on screen—and the outcome is a perfect melding that couldn’t have gone any other way. Of course, we as an audience are captivated by the life of Edith, her art, her secrets, and the tragedy that cut her life into two very different worlds—but to add Jane and Tess to the mix is an added treat, one Edith is surely glad to see Jane a part of.

Michelle describes this time on the road as a bonding experience where, as they searched for signs of Edith’s life, others became just as interested in digging around themselves. Michelle shared with the audience during the Q&A at QDoc that when they started filming, the only had one photo of Edith and by the end of filming they had about a dozen!

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Packed In A Trunk is hustling its way through the film festival circuit before its HBO debut in the summer. Seeing queer documentaries hit HBO is an important and exciting feat. Michelle says bringing Jane and Tess’s relationship to the screen was important for the queer community to see, because it’s empowering to witness a couple of “feisty and lovable broads” who as she puts it (careful to let us know they’ve used those very words about themselves) “are stirring things up and have made a difference in the life legacy of a totally overlooked lesbian artist from nearly 100 years ago.” That’s huge. The power of film is that there’s hope others out there will notice Edith’s work and discover pieces they have of hers in their own collections. Maybe someone’s relative knew Edith from her days in the asylum, or in among her peers in her art community.

The film included songs from Danielle Ate the Sandwich (Danielle Anderson), which plays along as the “musical voice” and suits the New England vibe of the doc. I whisper to my partner at one point throughout the film as the music and Jane are frolicking in sequence together, “The music suits this moment so well,” as the lyrics gently roll out, There was a fire… “Why do all the old mental hospitals have fires that destroy vital records?” Michelle Boyaner, this is a question for another documentary.

Even though many records of Edith’s later life were destroyed or tossed away, Packed In a Trunk finds just the right ways to fill in between the lines—Jane and Tess posing various questions and having righteous epiphanies about Edith (and themselves) and the spiritual quest resounds vibrantly, like the bright colors Edith once painted with.

Find out more about the film and where you can catch a screening, here: Packedinatrunk.com. And go on, have a look at Edith’s artwork. She has her own website: Edithlakewilkinson.com 

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