A Curiosity, Tough to Crack

The AFS Texas Documentary Tour: Don Bernier's 'In a Nutshell'

A Curiosity, Tough to Crack

Comparisons to wacky Edie Beale of the Maysles' Grey Gardens – perhaps even to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations – will be made. Filmmaker Don Bernier and his wife Tina Erickson set out in 1998 to make what most certainly would have been a much tamer documentary about private collections in roadside museums. Then they encountered Elizabeth Tashjian, who, at 89, physically frail but mentally agile, ran the Nut Museum out of her time-warped Gothic revival home in Old Lyme, Conn. A film with the scenery-chewing Tashjian in it could be only about Tashjian, Bernier quickly realized, and promptly scrapped the more expansive (and tamer) original plan. "Besides," he adds, "Elizabeth wouldn't share the stage with anyone else."

How Bernier captures the self-generated, unrepentant spunk, the motor that for nine decades and counting has propelled Tashjian, blinkered and unwavering, through life, confident that she – and not the rest of the world – had it right, is how In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian avoids the hackneyed "how quaint" genre. (A truly inspired musical score did some heavy lifting in this regard, as well.) Tashjian was born in 1912 in New York, the daughter of Armenian parents who divorced when she was a child. A violin virtuoso at 9, she moved on to painting, later graduating with honors from the National Academy of Design. Tashjian's artistic interest in – make that an obsession with – nuts began shortly after her arrival at the academy, where she painted both nut still-lifes and highly magnified cross-sections of nuts. After moving to Old Lyme with her mother in 1950, Tashjian continued her artwork. Her mother died nine years later. Thirteen years later, Tashjian opened the Nut Museum on the ground floor of their sprawling 19th-century mansion, the walls covered with the nut-cracker murals she'd painted. (The admission charge was $3 and a nut.) In 1981, after an appearance as the "Nut Lady" on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, the well-spoken Tashjian became a sought-after talk-show novelty guest.

Alas, in the staid New England society of Old Lyme (Kate Hepburn's former stomping grounds, as well), Tashjian's star was in descent. The diminutive, self-possessed spinster who bicycled to the A&P – so slowly that no one could understand how the bike remained upright – neglected her property; the hedges were overgrown, the house in disrepair, the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. When a museum visitor reported seeing squirrels inside the house, the Nut Museum's listing was ignominiously dropped from the local tourist guide. Throughout the film hovers the unresolved question: genius or insanity? And, would that even be an issue if she were a he?

During the film's three-year production, Tashjian's already colorful life took an unexpected turn for the high drama when she was found collapsed in her decrepit home and remained comatose for a month in a hospital. During that time, the state declared her "incapable," and Tashjian was placed in a nursing facility, her beloved home sold and her artwork and the contents of the Nut Museum rescued by a fascinated museum-studies curator. When Tashjian swims back to the surface, emerging from her coma, seemingly undamaged and articulate as ever, she's mad as hell. I think that's all I'll say for now.

Austin Chronicle: With a subject as eccentric and controversial as Elizabeth, did you ever feel like you'd reached an objective understanding of who she was? With the various talking heads who appear in the film, offering differing perspectives on Tashjian, who was the one with the most objectivity about Elizabeth?

Don Bernier: Of all the people I interviewed for the film who knew Tashjian, journalist Christine Woodside seemed to have the most objective perspective of her. In doing research on Tashjian, Woodside's newspaper articles were the only media source that went beyond the routine genitalia jokes and "eccentric woman collects nuts" headlines. Her stories revealed the talented artist underneath it all, as well as Tashjian's financial and social struggles in town. I used Christine's approach to my own filmmaking. However, the film is called In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian, as opposed to "the Portrait." It's just one version of her complex story. I felt very strongly about trying to create an accurate, objective portrait of Ms. Tashjian but also realized that that was a nearly impossible mission. I think that whether you're a photojournalist or a writer or a documentary filmmaker, a truly objective product is a tall order – maybe even a myth. No matter where you point your camera, you're not pointing it somewhere else. Even the way one frames a subject or lingers on a certain shot is a form of editorializing or being subjective. That said, I did come away with an impression of Elizabeth and her persona of the "Nut Lady." I'll leave it up to the audience to come to their own conclusions.

AC: In the end, did you feel more – or less – like an advocate for her?

DB: On the subject of objectivity, I think I may have only achieved a C minus at best. What happened to Elizabeth (the state declaring her "nuts" and taking her home away) was not a black-and-white issue. The probate court was in between a rock and a hard place with Tashjian's case. However, as an outside observer, I do think it could've been handled differently and Tashjian could've been brought into the process more. While I tried to be fair to the whole story and to all parties involved, Elizabeth remains my hero – in life and in the film. Beyond that, I think the film honors those like Elizabeth – those who live their lives by their own design. At best, society calls these people "artists," or maybe "eccentric." At worst, they are labeled as "unstable," "incapable," or even "insane."

AC: What was Elizabeth's reaction to watching your film?

DB: Having said that, I don't think Elizabeth would consider this film a success in terms of advocating for her. As much as I allowed her to be, Elizabeth was involved in the making of the film – beyond acting as the primary subject. She supplied the initial list of potential interviewees for production (mainly including those who'd substantiate her side of the story). Toward the end of the editing process, I continued to show her rough cuts of the film in progress. Each time, she watched with enthusiasm, often rising up and cheering when vintage photos of her mother flashed across the screen. There were a handful of notes that Elizabeth gave me that proved to be very helpful: factual errors in the time line or mislabeled images. She also asked that I not include so much footage of the upstairs interior of her home, which I agreed to. When Liddy Karter appeared – the new owner of the former Nut Museum – Tashjian forbade me to include her in the cut, stating "I don't want that woman in my film!" It was at this point that I gave up on wanting Elizabeth to "like" the film and realized I had to be true to the story as it unfolded. While I knew that it was painful for Elizabeth to watch the renovations on her beloved house play out on the screen, I also understood that omitting this scene would be dishonest and compromise the integrity of the film. I think that this was the most important thing I learned in the making of the film, my first documentary about a living, breathing person: There is a fine line between making a vanity piece about someone you respect and telling an honest story about a complex person caught up in a tragic situation. In the end, I tried to remain respectful to Tashjian while maintaining my responsibility to the larger story.

AC: The music was so perfect throughout the film. Can you talk about the process of getting it so right? It really added substantively to the film, way beyond the usual supporting role.

DB: There are three sources of music used in the film: Barry Black tracks from the Tragic Animal Stories CD, Matthew Logan's original score, and a few of Elizabeth's own compositions. From the first time I heard the Barry Black release, I knew I wanted to include some of it in the film. I used it for certain scenes, which created the musical foundation for the whole documentary. Matt Logan, a young composer living and teaching in New York, came onboard to help flesh out the overall score. He used the Barry Black tracks as a jumping off point but ended up creating a unique sound – almost like a supporting character – throughout the film. Finally, Elizabeth's songs added a level of authenticity to the project. A studio in Hartford, Connecticut, had recorded several of her works back in the 1970s and 80s, and Elizabeth still had a few cassettes from that session. Hearing some of the "Nut Lady"'s own compositions helped immerse the viewer in the world of the Nut Museum prior to its closing.

AC: Any post-film developments in the saga?

DB: I haven't heard much news about Elizabeth lately. She was moved to a private room or "studio" as she calls it. She's still drawing and painting and threatening to sue the state. Christopher Steiner [the Connecticut College museum curator] has helped decorate her room with some of her paintings, and he continues to work on a book about the Nut Museum. I've heard that the family who bought the newly renovated (former) Nut Museum seem happy in their new home, despite the occasional joke about living in a "nut house" muttered by locals. Life goes on in Old Lyme. I am currently working on a historical documentary film about the history of circus sideshows and starting to write a screenplay about growing up in rural Maine. end story

In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian

Don Bernier in attendance

Wednesday, June 14, 7pm

Alamo Drafthouse Downtown

Admission: www.austinfilm.org

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In a Nutshell:A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian, Don Bernier

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