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The Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum will present the first, major exhibition of visual and performance artist Elizabeth Tashjian. The exhibition, The Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian, opens on Friday, February 13, 2004 and runs through Sunday, June 6, 2004.
The Nut Museum offers a retrospective of Elizabeth Tashjian's paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the 1930s to the present. It recreates the Nut Museum's main gallery, with all of its original furnishings, art, and displays. And features a compilation of the "Nut Lady's" media appearances on national television.
Elizabeth Tashjian was born in 1912 in New York City, the daughter of Armenian parents who divorced when she was seven. Art and music were prominent in her childhood. She was a violin virtuoso at age nine, and in her late teens won a scholarship to the School of Applied Design for Women. She later graduated with honors from the National Academy of Design.
Tashjian's artistic interest in nuts began shortly after her arrival at the Academy, where she painted both nut still-lifes and highly magnified cross-sections of nuts. One work characteristic of this period is the Nutcracker Suite (1937), which depicts cracked nuts and a pair of eagle-headed nutcrackers strewn across a richly embroidered white cloth. "Our family liked nuts," says Tashjian. "We had bowls and bowls to eat, to play with, to garnish dishes, and one day they became more than edible delights; they became paintable subjects for me. And that's how it all started."
After moving to Old Lyme, Connecticut with her mother in 1950, Elizabeth Tashjian became active in the Lyme Art Association, where she often exhibited her work. In 1959, following her mother's death, Tashjian grew more secluded in her home. On a whim, Tashjian opened the Nut Museum on April 22, 1972. "I didn't really give it too much thought," she says. "I'm a minute-woman, and the idea of a Nut Museum just came to me." The museum was housed on the ground floor of her sprawling 19th-century Victorian mansion at 303 Ferry Road. The home's dining room served as the main exhibition gallery, and featured Tashjian's nut paintings, as well as a collection of nuts, nutcrackers and nut-related memorabilia.
Although the Nut Museum's original mission was to highlight the beauty of nuts as depicted in Tashjian's art, the museum's scope soon expanded. "As creator and curator of the Nut Museum," Tashjian says, "I became aware that some people have a load considering themselves to be a nut. So my motives changed. I set out to remove the demerit marks from the word 'nut'. My painting then used the power of art to make social commentary."
In an early painting entitled The Speaker (1938), Tashjian explored for the first time the anthropomorphic qualities of the nut. The painting depicts a Brazil nut resembling a human face, positioned on half a sandalwood box (suggesting a podium), with a glass of water off to one side. Tashjian did not return to this exploration of the human qualities of nuts until after the Nut Museum had opened in the 1970s. In Quote Me, Never Dwarf the Little Man (1975), a large and striking work painted in bold acrylic colors, Tashjian reveals again the anthropomorphic shape of nuts -- this time in a peanut kernel. She says: "The painting shows half of a peanut kernel, a dwarf design running through it, in the shadow of the kernel's face. The cashew marks indicate quotation marks, and I say 'Never dwarf the little man', or in other words the person who is misunderstood or belittled. There is a sublime point here. So I became a humanitarian. I've gone from being an artist to being a philosopher!"
Soon after the Nut Museum opened, a visitor donated to the museum a 35-pound nut called the coco-de-mer. Found only on one island in the Seychelles, the coco-de-mer is the world's largest kind of nut, and has long been a source of curiosity and intrigue. Because the nut's contours strongly resemble the female pelvis, Tashjian argues that this unusual specimen challenges Darwin's theory of evolution. "I'm using this nut to make a joke of the material origins of Man. I say 'Out with apes and in with nuts!'." In the Nut Museum, the coco-de-mer held a place of honor on an elegant Chinese Dragon Chair.
The coco-de-mer was the subject of many of Tashjian's later paintings, drawings, and sculptures. A watercolor, entitled Offspring of Coco-de-Mer (1990) depicts a small plastic doll emerging -- like a baby from the womb -- out of the nut's shell. The image evokes in visual form Tashjian's joke on evolutionary theory.
In 1981, Elizabeth Tashjian appeared on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Her success with Carson led to scores of other talk show appearances, including interviews with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Howie Mandel, Roseanne, and Howard Stern. Tashjian's television performances generally included a rendition of one of her songs: Nuts Are Beautiful ©1973 or the March of the Nuts ©1978.
In 1975, Tashjian created five large multimedia panels that illustrate the first stanza of Nuts Are Beautiful - Oh Nobody Ever Thinks About Nuts (1975), Nuts Can Be So Beautiful If Looked Aright (1975), Take Nuts Home (1975), And Handle them Properly, Artistically (1975), And Feel a New Taste Being Born (1975). Since 1996, Tashjian's songs and artwork have been featured on the website of Roadside America.
By the mid 1980s, Tashjian had transformed herself from a traditionally-trained visual artist into an avant-garde performance artist who appealed to a broad popular audience. Her paintings changed too, from a more formal academic style characteristic of the 1930s and 1940s to a bold new style rendered in bright colors and on a more monumental scale. Although she was trained at the National Academy of Design, Tashjian's later work (after 1972) finds similarities with Self-Taught, Outsider or Visionary art traditions, including such artists as Mona Boulware Webb and Tressa "Grandma" Prisbrey.
The Nut Museum closed in 2002. Elizabeth Tashjian (93) currently resides in a nursing home not far from her house. Tashjian's art, collections, and papers have been preserved by Connecticut College's Program in Museum Studies. The archive is a critical record of local history. and evidence of a unique artistic expression and an extra-ordinary example of late 20th-century American popular culture.
This exhibition, organized and curated by Dr. Christopher Steiner, Director of Museum Studies at Connecticut College and Interim Director of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, brings to light for the first time a comprehensive view of Elizabeth Tashjian's artistic vision over the past seventy years, and interprets the significance and history of the Nut Museum in terms of current scholarship in art history and museum studies.
This exhibition made possible, in part, with support from Elizabeth and Anthony Enders, Deborah and Charles Farrow, Jerry Henkin, the Northern Nut Growers Association, and Kalamian's Rug Shop of New London.
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