“Packed In a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson” premieres on HBO tonight


Back in May, we wrote about a film that was set to premiere this summer on HBO that you would not want to miss. And guess what? That day is here. Premiering tonight on HBO, Packed In a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson is the story about a woman whose truth was covered up and locked away for years.

Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jane Anderson took a turn in front of the camera for her documentary about her Great Aunt Edith, whose art had been packed away in a trunk for decades after she was sent away to an asylum in 1924. Seeking justice for Edith and allowing her art to be out there again simply became Jane’s duty. For a phenomenal storyteller like Jane, who has been writing visually captivating work for years in groundbreaking film and television (If These Walls Could Talk 2, Normal, Olive Kitteridge), there is also a truth-seeker in her who sought to make right the shadows of Edith’s past.

JaneAnderson1Filmmaker Jane Anderson, Cape Cod National Seashore, 2014

“Thankfully those trunks were left in the attic for all those years—long enough for my mom to discover them,” Jane said of the big discovery.

Edith’s artwork became the backdrop for Jane’s world growing up. But in the early 1900s, Edith flourished in an art community in Provincetown, Massachusetts where not only was her painting palette and eye for detail so lively, but she was also trailblazing the “white line” wood block technique ahead of her entire community of artists. Sadly, she was never credited for her innovations, just like she was never properly welcomed into society as an unmarried woman—because she was living with her longtime partner, Fannie. This meant tidal waves of new information for Jane and Team Edith when they began their documentary journey. Was Edith being sent away somehow punishment for people disapproving of her relationship with Fannie?

“I didn’t even realize all the similarities we had until we started filming the doc,” Jane said. “Edith was part of the background in the life I’ve been living for the past 50 decades. It made my head spin!”

For one, both women took the brave step of moving to New York at the age of 20. As you can see, a woman moving to the big city with dreams and aspirations was as relevant in the late 1800s as it is today. There’s also the evolution of Jane’s artwork alongside the evolution of Edith’s. Their paintings are strikingly similar; the scenes Edith painted in her day, observations of the world, through people, food, nature, landscape—it’s as if the two are cosmically connected by some kind of powerful force (and, well, they are!) But as a kid, could Jane have ever known that her Great Aunt Edith was also a lesbian, just like her?

No wonder her head was spinning. If you tune in, you’ll be privy to plenty of surprises that Jane and her partner (and executive producer) Tess Ayers uncover along the way as they journey deeper into Edith’s private life. One moment is so stunning in comparison, you’d have to pinch yourself to make sure this is real. It involves a gift that Tess gave to Jane, and how that connects back to Edith and her partner Fannie is remarkable.

Jane (co-writer and executive producer), Tess, and their longtime friends, director of Packed In a Trunk, Michelle Boyaner (also a co-writer and executive producer), and Michelle’s partner, cinematographer, editor and executive producer Barbara Green, set out to uncover as much as they could about Edith. But it wouldn’t be easy—so much time has passed, and few to no records can be found from the asylum years Edith spent locked away in isolation. There’s always a fire, as Michelle said in the film.

“The difficult thing about tracing the lives of single women back then, let alone women who were gay, is that back in that day, women who weren’t married and didn’t have children were called ‘sisters’ and were basically dismissed by their family members,” Jane said. “And there wasn’t that respect of, ‘This is a life that needs to be remembered.’ I have a feeling that when Fannie got ill and she returned home to Georgia, she probably threw out all the photographs, souvenirs of all her times with Edith, and it’s possible that her brothers or sisters or nieces and nephews, when she died, just kinda dumped it all.”

Jane has been with her partner Tess for over 26 years, and that’s where Team Edith comes in. For decades, Jane and Tess have been friends with Michelle and Barbara. You could say it’s kismet that the group came together to make this film a reality.

“It involves a lot of trust. And we all really got along creatively, and our friendships are even better after this,” Jane said. “We all adore each other. But it could’ve gone in the other direction—we could’ve all ended up hating each other! I think the reason it came together was because none of us were making this for our own individual careers, we were doing this all for Edith.”

They started out with one photo of Edith, and now they have 12. The paintings Edith created began to stack up, too—some Jane had never laid eyes on before. Keep your eyes on Jane when she uncovers new Edith material throughout the film—the endearing breath of the moment will give you goosebumps.

“Our entire focus was: How do we bring justice to this woman’s lost life?” Jane said. “I think when the objective is that pure and has to do with helping somebody else, everybody steps up. And if you wanna be spooky about it, maybe even Edith was guiding us. Her beautiful spirit has been hanging over this project the whole time.”

I bet Edith is hanging overhead now, walking with Jane as she heads back to lunch to see Tess as they prepare for tonight’s premiere—Edith’s premiere.

In the words of Aretha Franklin, now these sisters are doing it for themselves. With HBO airing Packed In a Trunk, there is hope that someone watching will perhaps have in their own collection an Edith Lake Wilkinson original, or maybe they’re the distant relative of a certain Fannie who spent her days in Provincetown, hailed from the Peach State and was once connected to Edith. The extra layer of hope is that even if her materials were thrown away, there is still some shred of proof, or some lineage to this story that hasn’t yet been told.

“Tess did all this research trying to find Fannie. Tess wrote a letter to one of her relatives but never heard back, so, that’s—oh boy, that’s one of the pieces we hope we can fill out,” Jane said. “Or maybe Fannie was so pissed off at Edith that she burned everything.”

Pissed off, you say? It wouldn’t be a lesbian relationship if there wasn’t a little lesbian drama.

JaneAnderson2Edith Lake Wilkinson, Larkin Gallery window, Provincetown, MA, 2013

Even though Jane had previously ventured to Provincetown in the 1970s in search of folks who knew Edith or recognized her work, they hardly turned a cheek. Maybe after all these years of silently, visually guiding Jane, Edith would emerge onto the surface and show herself. They set out to return Edith and her artwork to Provincetown and to show her work at the Larkin Gallery. They hoped to display her work with pride and allow others to witness and walk away with something, with their own little pieces of Edith. In that way, Jane has succeeded in providing Edith with peace and justice, because now people can come to Edith and view her work whenever they want—Edith, her art, and how she loved in her life is no longer hidden from the world.

It makes you wonder: What would have happened to Edith had she spent her last decades living freely? Jane is unsure about that, but she speculates over whether Edith’s style would have continued to evolve and change. It’s positive that it would have, or that she might have even moved onto some new form that nobody knew about yet.

“That’s the great loss. That’s what makes my heart ache,” she said. “That’s the stuff that propelled me to get the website made, get her art out there, so that at least those couple of decades could be appreciated and out there, observed and collected, and loved. Besides, I’m now 60, and I’m heading into that last grand quarter of my life, and I didn’t want to finish off my life and have her work go back into a trunk.”

That sense of her own mortality propped up next to Edith’s, who was in her late 50s when she was committed, is another similarity that blends across the canvas from Edith to Jane and Jane to Edith. There may not be reason, but there is definite feeling: timing is everything.

JaneAnderson3Tess Ayers and Jane Anderson walk Edith’s former streets in beloved Provincetown, 2013

In the film, as Jane and Tess walk the roads of Provincetown, you can’t help but imagine Edith taking a stroll with her own lover, painted as friends instead of partners, careful not to touch, look at each other lovingly, or make anyone stare. The tagline for Packed In a Trunk is appropriate: “Here’s to being seen.” When you start with a blank canvas, it’s unclear—the number of layers in your stroke, what you will shade in and what you will color, how the lines will appear and what elements will come into focus while others remain in the background. A woman should always have the right: to be seen, for everything she is, for every strand of color in her life.

I asked Jane what she would paint for Edith; what she would show her if she was still here, sitting beside her now.

“I’ve travelled all over the world with my sketchbook and my paint, and I’ve always felt that Edith is there, wherever I painted. I sat on a hilltop in the Serengeti in Kenya. And I remember this—I so remember it—I remember the exact sketch and the landscape, and marveling at it,” Jane said.”I’ve been in Australia, and Bali, and the Amazon, and Ecuador—all these crazy places she’d never been, but I always knew she was there, not really guiding my hand, but enjoying all the color I put down on the paper, all the vegetables, the flowers—the flower stands in France, or wherever I was! I just know she was watching.”

Packed In a Trunk premieres on HBO tonight, July 20, at 9PM ET.

Tweet me @the_hoff to let me know what you thought! #TeamEdith

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