Art Doc of the Week | Packed in a Trunk
Edith Lake Wilkinson (August 23, 1868 – July 19, 1957) spent the last thirty-two years of her life institutionalized. After being committed to an asylum in 1924 at the age of 57, she became something of a mythical creature in the lore of her own family. It took the decades-long interest and investigative work of her great niece Jane Anderson, a filmmaker and artist in her own right, to fill in the blanks on how and why this talented, innovative painter – who at one point was poised for a career breakthrough – was all but lost to history. It’s a riveting, often infuriating story that casts the openly gay Anderson, along with her spouse Tess Ayers (who co-produced the documentary), in the roles of detective to piece it together and fill in the pieces.
What they uncover is Edith’s lesbianism, a partner – Fanny (who shared the same last name when they met) – and a life in the artist colony of early 20th century Provincetown. What drives the story, though, isn’t the series of real-life injustices Edith suffered, but the fact that she was a genuinely talented painter who helped pioneer a style she was given no credit for. Anderson keeps the real-life tale moving at a quick pace, as she interviews family members and art historians, hits the pavement to dig through old documents, uncovers a horrifyingly unscrupulous lawyer, and finds eerie parallels between her life and Edith’s, at one point weeping that she’s living the life Edith never could. Throughout, Anderson frequently pulls the camera back to take in Edith’s work, letting the viewer see for themselves what a promising talent she was.
Not everything in Anderson’s filmmaking arsenal works. The soundtrack is filled with overly earnest female singer/songwriter fare; the inclusion of her own activism as a gay marriage advocate is an awkward fit (and serves as ironic counterpoint to the news that Edith might have been something of a heartbreaking player); and the decision to employ a psychic when she hits a wall in her investigation (which is where Edith’s roving eye is revealed) results in a wobbling imbalance between credibility and entertainment.
What gives the film its lingering chill and helps it overcome its weaknesses is the knowledge that the near-erasure of Edith is the story of countless women artists and queer folk who didn’t have the kind of talent someone could latch onto to pull them from the cracks of history, didn’t have a sympathetic family member who would champion and agitate for them after their death. Embedded in Edith’s story are countless similar stories that will have no triumphant ending.