This past Tuesday afternoon, the William Benton Museum of Art hosted a film screening for “In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian,” a documentary surrounding the life of Elizabeth Yegsa Tashjian. Christopher Steiner, Professor of Art History and Anthropology and Director of the Museum Studies Program at Connecticut College, introduced the film to the audience. Steiner is the guest curator of the Nut Museum exhibition at the Benton, which will be open to the public until Friday, March 11.
“In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian” delved into the personal life of Elizabeth Yesga Tashjian, an enthusiastic, if not obsessive, lover of nuts. The film was produced by Don Bernier, the editor of “Athlete A” and “Lead Me Home.”
“In 1998, Don and his wife Tina Erickson began shooting a documentary project about private collections in roadside museums,” said Steiner. “Then they encountered Elizabeth Tashjian, who at the age of 89, ran the Nut Museum out of her gothic revival mansion in Old Lyme.”
After meeting Elizabeth, Don and his wife chose to toss their original film idea and make an entire piece surrounding Elizabeth and her museum.
“The film started out as a pretty conventional narrative about Elizabeth, her passion for nuts and her life as an eccentric artist, and of course the founder of the one and only nut museum.”Christopher Steiner, professor of Art History and Anthropology and Director of the Museum Studies Program at Connecticut College.
The film discusses all areas of Elizabeth’s life, including the hard loss of her mother and how the townspeople responded to the Nut Museum. Not having a partner or any family to rely on, it is said that Elizabeth felt somewhat abandoned after her mother died. In fact, she completely stopped playing the violin after her mother’s death and focused on only nuts.
Throughout “In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian,” the audience sees Elizabeth being hosted on several television shows, many of which mocked her for her nut obsession. She was a topic of conversation, especially when it came to a 35-pound coconut that came from a palm tree located in the Seychelles. Despite some individuals’ mockery, Elizabeth continued to run the Nut Museum on her own. For 30 years she singlehandedly gave people elaborate tours of her museum and welcomed them into her home.
At the age of 90, Elizabeth was found in a coma in her Old Lyme home and was immediately placed in a nursing home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. During this time, the home was bound for town acquisition due to Elizabeth not having any heirs or debt. This is when Steiner petitioned for the art and contents of the home, and eventually Old Lyme granted ownership to Connecticut College.
If you would like to learn more about the Nut Museum and Elizabeth Tashjian, the Benton exhibit will be available until March 11. Steiner is also currently in the midst of writing a book titled “Performing the Nut Museum.”