I almost began this story with a clumsy allusion to rabbit holes, but then I read about squirrels' dreys. They are often perched high in trees, neighboring the aether, beyond our easy reach or interpretation. That imagery fits the life and art of Elizabeth Tashjian a lot better than the tunnel vision of a rabbit hole.
That’s not to say Tashjian, who died in 2007, wasn’t possessed by a singular vision. Fifty years ago, this Christian Scientist made her own drey when she turned her mansion home in Old Lyme, Connecticut, into the Nut Museum. Just as dreys can be mistaken for birds’ nests, it was easy to misconstrue the contents of Tashjian’s museum. Actual nuts comprised the collection’s minority. It was Tashjian’s own nut-centric artworks that were the true showcase.
Today “nut” means something hornier than it did in 1972, but the term was still cheeky enough then that reporters found themselves intrigued. First the Nut Museum popped up in local papers, then wire services, and eventually national magazines, from cranky satire mag Spy to Weekly World News, best remembered for once lining every supermarket checkout with its Bat Boy covers. Tashjian wasn’t so sideshow, but the way she was often portrayed—cradling a giant double coconut—didn’t help. She wasn’t thrilled to be called “the Nut Lady” either, but she did seem to relish her status as a minor celeb, one who made appearances across every late night talk show of the era.
That’s the story of how the Nut Museum began. How it exists now is summarized by an exhibit on UConn’s sprawling campus in Storrs. Remembering the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian, now on view at the Benton Museum, continues curator Christopher Steiner’s project of organizing Tashjian’s legacy in a gallery paradigm.
Why did Tashjian confide so much in Steiner, a Connecticut College professor who had never visited her museum? The short version begins with a coma. Tashjian entered one after being found unconscious in her home in 2002. The State of Connecticut saw an opportunity to recover the taxes she owed, and listed Tashjian’s house for sale. Steiner had never visited the Nut Museum himself: “Elizabeth’s opening hours were often unpredictable!” he said. But he'd been aware of it since he began teaching, and so he petitioned the Old Lyme Probate Court to preserve the museum’s contents before Tashjian’s house was sold.
Somewhat miraculously, an 89 year-old Tashjian awoke from her coma weeks later. She was understandably livid at the impending loss of her home. She would be furious again when the State assumed her as a ward and shipped her off to an assisted living facility. With Steiner’s interest and intervention, at least her life's work was rescued. She worked with him to curate two exhibits, the predecessors to this current show, before she died.
Steiner himself now seems inextricable from Tashjian’s legacy, but it’s easy to see how his interest originated. In a virtual talk given last week, he discussed “the idea that so many small, ephemeral museums disappear over time.”
We can quibble as to whether Tashjian’s extant collection still constitutes a museum, but perhaps it was always less of a museum and more of what Steiner suggests, a “cabinet of curiosities.” These are also known as “Wunderkammer” in German, which translates as ‘wonder room.’ As this colorful term suggests, the owner’s awe sustains and guides their collection and any constellations therein. Walter Benjamin once argued that ownership, not content, is the most important thing about a collection. Even in its retooled, memorial form, Tashjian’s collection evinces her personality—and of course her strong and peculiar love of nuts.
And what a leguminous love affair she had. If you’re looking for retro strangeness, almost in the vein of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the exhibit might be worth a visit for the ephemera alone. There are the masks Tashjian would don on tours of her museum, including the very cute “sweet chestnut” model whose paper snout is infused with musical notes. Sketches for a nut-based Disneyland competitor, including a squirrel trolley, occupy another display case.
Nearby, a recording of Tashjian’s quite pretty love song to nuts plays faintly on loop within an installation. This area reproduces entirely the original museum’s dining room, complete with a back-turned mannequin as a proxy for Tashjian herself, an exquisitely campy finishing touch.
The paraphernalia adds context to the main attraction of the art. So what animates the work here? Is it Tashjian’s intangible personality, her ghost in the shell?
Formally speaking, the art is all over the place, with a few clear breaks in method. The more traditional canvases were made during the first half of Tashjian’s long life, and in them we see what Steiner calls her “insider” approach, the same one she nurtured in her time as a student at the National Academy of Art. These lack the flamboyance of her later stuff, but some, like a 1932 self portrait or a snowy Central Park landscape from 1942 are aptly, charmingly painted.
Tashjian’s paintings of cloth are more technically confused but they still exert power. Try peeping the pink linen of Aflame (1935, pastel on paper), which spreads beneath crushed nuts in a mess of fever and nostalgia. The bunched fabric in The Gold Standard (Almonds in an Ancient Setting) (1937, oil on canvas) is awkwardly composed, but relinquishes all attention once you spot the intricate green plates that sit atop the heap.
The later period works, presumably the source of the exhibit’s “visionary” title, are dominated by a light surrealism, psychedelic palettes, and big swooping brushwork contiguous with today’s figurative paintings.
This lysergic break was quite sudden according to Tashjian. In an interview Steiner conducted, she said that to achieve psychedelia, “Some artists take drugs…But to me [these visions] were just appearing naturally!”
That’s not unheard of as far as Christian mystics go. It’s easy to mistake the mystic for a purely ecstatic type, especially given that our most ubiquitous cultural image of such a character is Bernini’s practically orgasming Saint Teresa (1652, marble sculpture).
Earthy sweetness and humor instead keep these works buoyant, glimpsed especially in Tashjian’s later obsession with the Coco de Mer, the unusually large nut/fruit of the Lodoicea tree. The theme appears as early as 1975 in the friendly canvas Take Nuts Home, and reached its apex in the late 80s. The pelvis-shaped coco de mer was Tashjian’s own bit on Darwinism, and but one extension of her Christian Science beliefs. Steiner notes:
She prided herself on living a fairly sheltered life with ‘her ideas,’ her art and her deep religious convictions as a Christian Scientist…I think her belief in Christian Science was extremely important. Elizabeth’s mother, Elmas, became a Christian Science healer around 1900…And when Elmas died in 1959, Elizabeth took over her practice as a Christian Science healer in Old Lyme…Much of what Elizabeth said in her ‘guided tour’ of the Nut Museum, drew on Christian Science beliefs about the true identity of Man being "idea" and not materiality.
I wonder if Tashjian saw the nut as a kernel of something else, a memento encouraging us to go deeper, to pierce and pry our illusions apart. A recurring element in her narrative is that when she started the museum, she didn’t know ‘nut’ was an alternate pejorative to the equally pejorative ‘crazy.’ Upon learning this Tashjian made it her crusade to uplift the people deemed unfit through their nuttiness.
The Christian Scientist conception of illness as personal failing adds another psychedelic layer here though. Wouldn’t mental illness be just as much a metaphysical error as physical illness? I’m not suggesting Tashjian’s sympathies were purely performative, but rather: what does it mean to be an ailing soul in a world that is nothing but soul?
Now, the Nut Museum is itself disembodied but still alive, with Steiner as custodian. Could anything rival what once was? The Nutcracker Museum of Leavenworth, Washington, has been open since 1995, and it maintains not only a main webpage but two sister sites, “KidsLoveNutcrackers.com” and “NutcrackerDay.com.” Go figure that the instrument of force gets a holiday and a Mickey Mouse Club.
Nutcrackers use the human shape to crush nuts, but Tashjian used her art to elevate the very things they crushed. She painted nutcrackers, but mostly old-fashioned ones, a metallic adversary in her cosmology. Tashjian noted in interviews: the nutcracker and the nut are “natural enemies,” but at her museum they coexisted peacefully. It’s a gently absurd statement, tinged with the warm glow of utopia that seems to suffuse so much of her characteristic strangeness.
One could pry all day at the opacity of Tashjian’s statements, which are engineered with a sharp wit. No wonder the subtitle of Steiner’s book-in-progress about Tashjian went from double entendres to “performing the nut museum.” Tashjian was indeed a skilled performer and, like any authentic religious, her conviction makes her convincing (and entertaining). If Tashjian’s mission—whether as Christian Scientist, artist, or simply person—was to help heal a damaged material world, I can’t fault her.
So what’s the active ingredient in Tashjian’s art? It could be the face-value silliness and supreme levels of camp that gloss the entire presentation. There’s the knowing wink Tashjian had toward her subject matter. The subliminal Christian Science can’t be ignored either. Lacking her religiosity, what does a secular viewer find in her worldview? After all, Tashjian’s nutty Weltanschauung is as much on view as the art.
Personally I was most struck by the hints of secret knowledge creeping through the mundane, the kind of stuff a Gnostic (or, yes, a paranoid) would appreciate. Watching video clips at the exhibit, a mask-donning Tashjian utters at one point: “The unknown nut honors the nut that is not known, but exists.”
I laughed out loud. Something about the delivery was funny, this borderline sense of portent emanating from an “unknown nut.” But there are many things I laugh at thoughtlessly, because I know Freud was right and we laugh partly to navigate anxiety.
Granted, sometimes a nut is just a nut, but even a humble nut is worth appreciating on its own terms. Consider the sweetness of a chestnut, and the hardness of its shell. For Tashjian, the world was all selfsame substance. A matter of soul, and not the illusions of dirt. Sweetness and shell converged in a single spiritual unit.
There is much to complain about with dualism, and a monistic solution may be more forgiving. Metaphor becomes flesh, and our hard rinds splinter to reveal the something-else. Take nuts home, Tashjian advised. What would otherwise be impenetrable is made manageable when we return to our dreys. Our attention and excitement crack open hard shell, exposing the soul of the matter.
Remembering the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian curated by Christopher Steiner, is on view through Friday, March 11, 2022. The show is
It’s located on the UConn campus, at The Benton museum, 245 Glenbrook Road, Storrs, CT. Free admission but donations welcomed.
An accompanying film screening and interactive workshop are scheduled for March 1 and 8, respectively. See 'Exhibit info' below.
While you’re at the Benton, linger in the first room a bit for some paintings of loggers at work, made by Harry Leith-Ross on a 1933 assignment for the Civilian Works Administration. I liked the pine-scented masculine vibe of these canvases, although my husband wasn’t impressed.
We were both wowed, however, by a series of arpilleras from Pinochet-era Chile. These colorful burlap canvases were largely made by women whose families had been detained or tortured under the totalitarian regime. Banned from sale or display in their native land, arpilleras were smuggled out of the country by liberationist Catholics to provide income for the artists. A few feet away, two 17th-century statues of saints carved from beautifully deteriorated linden wood continue to watch over these pastoral scenes—an arrangement deserving kudos for sure.