After opening on Feb. 1, the Benton Museum’s newest exhibit, “Remembering the Nut Museum: Visionary Art of Elizabeth Tashjian,” is set to run until March 11. The exhibit, curated by Christopher Steiner, an art history professor at Connecticut College, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original Nut Museum’s opening.
On Feb. 17, Steiner gave a talk called “Saving the Nut Museum and Other Nutty Adventures in Art History,” detailing Tashjian’s history and introducing the exhibition.
Originally a violinist, Tashjian turned to pursue art and attended the National Academy of Design in 1939. After developing a fascination with nuts, she weaved them into many of her paintings, which Steiner argues were largely influenced by George Baer and surrealism.
In 1972, Tashjian opened the Nut Museum at her Old Lyme home, converting her dining room into the gallery’s main display. She gave guided tours to every visitor, showcasing nuts, paintings, masks and sculptures. Admission began at one nut and a dollar; those who forgot were welcome to take one from the walnut trees on her property.
As part of the tour, she would quiz visitors to identify the nut masks she had created and made great use of humor, playing with the several meanings of the word. She even composed two songs about nuts, which you can hear played at the Benton’s exhibit.
In 1973, she excitedly held the first annual Nut Ball, inviting local Brownies and Cub Scouts to join in on the fun.
Many referred to Tashjian as the Nut Lady and lumped her museum together with other quirky roadside attractions. But this frustrated Tashjian, who took it much more seriously, preferring to be called the Nut Visionary. Eventually, her work gained more traction and she was invited to speak on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“America likes nuts enough to name streets after them. And even people,” Tashjian said on the show.
In 2002, while in her 90s, Tashjian fell into a coma, leading the state to put her house on the market. Steiner petitioned the Old Lyme Probate Court, seeking to gather and preserve the collection of her work at Connecticut College.
Upon awakening, Tashjian, furious at the selling of her house, was moved into a nursing home. She unsuccessfully fought for her property back but found a silver lining in the preservation of her life’s work. Steiner spent time by her side, accumulating 50 hours of taped interviews. Through his curation, two exhibits showcasing her work were held before her passing in 2007.
Teaching a course on “bad art,” Steiner advocates for the preservation of ephemeral museums.
“When we think about museums, sometimes we just think about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these enormous buildings with columns and marble,” Steiner said in his introduction. “I think it’s important to think about the whole spectrum of museums.”
Steiner is currently writing a book currently entitled, “Performing the Nut Museum.” Though he will biograph Tashjian, he aims to explore larger issues at stake: historic preservation, American culture and museums as a stage.
On March 1, the Benton will host a screening of “In a Nutshell,” a documentary detailing Tashjian’s journey to regain her life. On March 8, they will be holding “Art & Artifact: Collecting in Practice,” an interactive workshop that will be spent discussing Tashjian’s paintings and learning how to use solar prints. You can check out “Remembering the Nut Museum,” which comes complete with a recreation of Tashjian’s dining room, until March 11.