If Edith Lake Wilkinson of Provinceton, Massachusetts, were alive today, her life would have turned out differently.
Instead, Wilkinson was born in 1868 and worked tirelessly to even study art as a woman. By 1925, the struggle got the best of her, and she was committed to a mental asylum. All of her vibrant, impressionistic artworks were packed into trunks, shipped back to her home town of Wheeling, West Virginia, and she was never heard from again.
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On Tuesday, January 13, Danielle Anderson (better known as Danielle Ate the Sandwich) will release her new album, The Drawing Back of Curtains. It serves as the soundtrack to a recent documentary about Wilkinson called Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.
The doc was written by Wilkinson's great-niece, Emmy-winning Jane Anderson (no relation to Danielle, by the way) and directed by longtime filmmaker Michelle Boyaner. In 2010, Boyaner approached Anderson about using some songs for her quirky indie film, The Bedwetter. For Packed in a Trunk, however, she wanted Anderson to create the entire score.
"My first thought was, 'Uh, hell no. I don't know how to do that. How can I jump in?' Then I kind of decided, 'Well, maybe I should give it a try and see what could happen,'" says Anderson.
Initially, by only having Wilkinson's book, paintings and sketches to go off of (as well as her tragic story), Anderson began writing orchestrated pieces about a tortured artist, and the producers weren't feeling it.
"I guess I felt the weight of that when they asked me," Anderson says. "Then I started to sink back into myself and I was like, 'Wait, Danielle, they asked you. You are a folk singer through and through, so they must be wanting you to do what you've done.'"
Anderson began drawing inspiration from her own life, and, because the documentary was still deep in production, she just started writing. Within a few months, she had a handful of songs to work with and an album took shape.
"I had about one and a half years to give them material before I even saw footage," Anderson recalls. "They were uncovering secrets and finding pieces of the puzzle, and they would tell me what was happening, so I was kind of along for the journey, but it was a backwards experience for writing the score to a film."
To Anderson, this atypical experience, along with her lack of experience scoring films, made her right for the job. "I think they were right to pick me in the sense that I'm tender and compassionate," Anderson says. "I try to walk in the subject's shoes, in the same way that they would."
Many of the tracks on The Drawing Back of Curtains relate Anderson's own feelings to those of Wilkinson's and vice versa. Other were created specifically for certain scenes of the documentary. The sixth track, "Then Something Happened," works as an interlude for both the album and the film.
"Jane is recounting the story, like, 'Edith Lake Wilkinson was this woman who studied art in Provincetown.She created these beautiful pieces of work and then something happened,'" Anderson explains. "Then the film immediately changes to a somber black and white. They're recounting when [Wilkinson] was sent away to an institution and what was it like for her."
While watching the film for the first time at the Palm Springs Film Festival earlier this month, Anderson imagined herself being born decades earlier, and it wasn't a romantic thought. She feels fortunate that women, especially female artists, have come so far.
"Even just the fact that I can get on stage and act like a total fool, I run a business, and I can boss men around, I'm very grateful for that. Because had I been born and raised at an earlier time in American history, I wouldn't have been able to do that," Anderson says.
At the same time, Anderson realized that Wilkinson's story, while tragic, is also filled with hope. Last year, while on tour in Los Angeles, she was invited by Jane and Boyaner to see Wilkinson's art. She immediately fell in love with the artist's intimate sketchbooks. The cover of The Drawing Back of Curtains, for instance, features one of Wilkinson's simple watercolor sketches. What Anderson cut out was the artist's handwritten caption: "from car window."
"I imagined her sitting in a car," Anderson says. "In the moment she wasn't trying to make beautiful art, it was just her and a sketchbook, bored and waiting. I can relate to those truer moments."
"Her story, when I first heard it, it was very tragic," Anderson continues. "And then, when I got more involved in the project, I tried to remember that, in her paintings, there was light and joy and color, so there had to have been moments of pure bliss where, even if she wasn't being recognized for her art, she was still able to paint and do what she loved."
After the album drops, Anderson will plan some live events around more film festival debuts. Later this year, HBO will air the documentary, and, hopefully, more people will learn about Wilkinson. Anderson concludes that, although Wilkinson couldn't live in this century, at least her story and her art will.
"I think I will always consider her a bit of a muse, and I imagine she'll poke in and out of my life until it's over," Anderson says. "I like that idea: Whether or not we're remembered in our lifetime, our stories can mean something, even if it's just to one person."
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