“In life, it’s much easier to get outraged for someone else than for yourself,” filmmaker Jane Anderson says.
That sense of outrage, coupled with curiosity, kinship and pure appreciation, compelled Anderson to turn a personal quest into a fascinating new documentary.
“Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson” unravels the tale of her great aunt, a professional painter who became a rising star of the influential art scene in Provincetown, Mass.
But in 1924, Wilkinson was placed in a Baltimore mental institution at the age of 57. She had no relatives and a fairly substantial estate, so the family lawyer made the decision to commit her, both as a means of embezzling her money and as possible castigation for the fact she was a lesbian who lived with her longtime companion.
Wilkinson spent the last 32 years of her life locked away. She was never allowed to paint again.
The documentary makes its Midwest premiere Saturday at Out Here Now: The Kansas City LGBT Film Festival.
“I always felt very protective of Edith even though I never knew her. But this woman I never met has been tapping at my shoulder my whole life,” Anderson says.
Wilkinson had all but disappeared from history. No legacy to speak of, other than scattered paintings hung in the homes of her distant relatives. (Anderson herself had acquired two of these pieces.) Most of her worldly possessions were stowed in the attic of a nephew for decades.
“We started out with only one photo of Edith we had in a trunk,” says Anderson, who wrote and produced the documentary.
From there, “Packed in a Trunk” offers a travelogue of Anderson’s attempt to unearth the painter’s personal saga and to bring her work back to Provincetown for a gallery showing.
The story develops into something remarkable, with coincidences and parallels aplenty. (Anderson later finds a painting Wilkinson did of a small building in Provincetown that now houses the gallery that agrees to dedicate a show to her work.) It also proves Wilkinson’s innovations pre-dated other artists credited with popularizing the one block method of color prints.
“I could always sense she not only was a beautifully crafted artist, she had a real unique palette and brush work,” Anderson says. “But as we all know, in an artistic career — whether it’s film or literature or art — talent isn’t always recognized. Our careers depend on timing.”
A four-time Emmy nominee who won the award for writing the 1993 comedy “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” Anderson has done her share of directing. Her credits include the Julianne Moore drama “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” and the Golden Globe-nominated TV movie “Normal” with Jessica Lange.
However, for “Packed in a Trunk,” Anderson elected to have documentarian Michelle Boyaner handle the directing chores. (“I’m just not skilled in that particular forum,” she says.)
Plus, she spends a huge portion of the two-hour enterprise in front of the camera.
“Now I’m used to seeing me. I’m not repelled anymore,” she says, laughing. “I just view myself as a character in the film.”
Jamie Rich, festival director of Out Here Now, considers the documentary one of his favorites at this year’s event.
“It’s a beautifully told story with universal appeal,” he says. “Both a revealing mystery and a valiant quest to right a wrong, people from all walks of life can relate to and get swept up by Jane’s heartfelt journey.”
Her journey features even deeper connections to Wilkinson’s life. Similar to her ancestor, Anderson has enjoyed a 30-year relationship with Tess Ayers, who also produced the film. The couple, now officially married, have an adopted son, Raphael.
The filmmaker is well aware her situation might be agonizingly different had she lived in the era of her great-aunt.
“We’re in a very gay-positive era. We’re the new popular minority. The liberal-straight community wants to defend gay rights and acknowledge the terrible history of it,” she says. “But I wanted to be very careful not to get too defensive for Edith. We didn’t want to make this a film about victimhood.”
Anderson takes pleasure in knowing “Packed in a Trunk” will introduce significant artwork to a fresh generation of admirers. After seeing these diverse pieces, is there any one painting she deems her favorite?
“I love the work Edith was doing right before she was put away. There’s a lovely street landscape she did in Provincetown. The street ends in the ocean. It’s abstract and brilliant. It’s deeply sophisticated as a work of art. At the same time, you can tell this town fed her soul,” Anderson says.
“I want to crawl into that picture and join her.”
In certain respects, she already has.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Out Here Now
Out Here Now: The Kansas City LGBT Film Festival runs Thursday through July 2. As part of the festival, “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson” will be shown at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Tivoli Cinemas. For a full list of films at the festival and showtimes, go to OutHereNow.com. Festival passes range from $30 to $65. Tickets to individual screenings are $8.50.