Home Arts and Leisure Discovery in the Attic: The Lost Work of Provincetown Artist Edith Lake Wilkinson

Discovery in the Attic: The Lost Work of Provincetown Artist Edith Lake Wilkinson

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In 1924, someone packed a truck with the life work of Edith Lake Wilkinson – her woodblocks, prints, sketches and paintings. And then someone packed Edith Lake Wilkinson off to an insane asylum in Baltimore, Md.

Edith spent the remaining 30 years of her life in mental institutions. Her trunkful of artwork would sit in an attic in Wheeling, W.Va., where her nephew, her only close surviving relative, still lived.

Edith Lake Wilkinson at 20

Years after her death, her great-niece solved at least part of the riddle of what happened to Edith Lake Wilkinson. And she brought her artwork back into the public eye, even as the art world rediscovered Edith’s contemporaries, known as the Provincetown Printers.

And, as it turned out, something else may have been taken from Edith Lake Wilkinson: credit for inventing the white line woodcut.

Edith Lake Wilkinson

Edith Lake Wilkinson was born in Wheeling, W.Va., on Aug. 23, 1868 into a middle-class family. She had one sister. In 1888, at the age of 19, she left for New York City, by herself, a journey that led, perhaps inevitably, to Provincetown.

Edith enrolled in the Art Students League, studying drawing and painting with some of the top teachers in the country. She then attended Columbia’s Teachers College in 1900, where she studied with Arthur Wesley Dow. She moved to Morningside Heights with a woman named Fannie Wilkinson, 13 years older than she. They traveled to Europe together; when they returned to New York, Edith went back to the Art Students League.

At least by 1914, and possibly earlier, she summered in the gay-friendly art colony of Provincetown. World War I had sent many European artists to Provincetown, where creative people flourished in the freewheeling, cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Provincetown at the time had three art schools, surely enough for everybody to partake in creative endeavors. And yet women artists had it harder than men. They could only sell art on Sunday, and they found it much harder to get recognized as artists.

The Monongahela, white line woodcut by Blanche Lazell

Provincetown Printers

Edith fell in with a group that called themselves the Provincetown Printers. They practiced a technique known as the white line woodcut. For decades, art critics attributed the invention of the white line woodcut to a Provincetown artist named B.J.O. Nordfeldt.

Like European artists, the Provincetown printmakers embraced the Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” The technique involved a separate woodblock for each color, a laborious and time-consuming process. Nordfeldt supposedly simplified the technique by etching designs onto one woodblock with a v-shaped tool that gouges a line between the shapes of the design. Then the artist attaches a piece of paper to the block, and colors in each area of the design separately. The artist then lays the paper down on the block and rubs the back with a spoon until the ink transfers to the paper.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Hokusai, a ukiyo-e print

Kate Hanlon, who practices the white line woodcut technique in Newburyport, Mass., explained part of its appeal: Artists can make prints economically on the kitchen table. “You don’t need a press or a printing table,” she said in a zoom interview.

The white line woodcut also fit with the Provincetown Printers’ aesthetic sensibility, she said. It was flat, modernist, and it incorporated the handcraft ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement still in vogue.

“They respected the art,” Hanlon said.

Blanche Lazell, for example, one of the foremost white line woodcut artists, also hooked rugs. Other members of the Provincetown printers included Ethel Mars, Maude Squire, Mildred McMillen, Ada Gilmore, Agnes Weinrich and Juliette Nichols.

He Done Her Wrong

Provincetown changed the art of Edith Lake Wilkinson. Her work began to reflect the bright clear Cape Cod light.  She moved to Boston, living at 337 Charles Street, presumably with Fannie.

Then on Feb. 15, 1922, her parents died suddenly, overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in their West Virginia living room.

Her sister Jane had died, leaving one young son, Edward Vossler. A Wheeling attorney named George Rogers took over Edith’s financial affairs, doling out her monthly allowance. In a letter, Rogers suggested she and Fannie live in separate apartments because people needed time to themselves. He also discouraged her from moving to Provincetown.

Two years after her parents died, Edith Lake Wilkinson was committed to the Sheppard-Pratt Institute, a hospital for the mentally ill in Baltimore. Her diagnosis: paranoia.

Edith Lake Wilkinson may well have had reason to think someone was out to get her. Prosecutors charged George Rogers with embezzling from his clients.

Edith won her release from Sheppard-Pratt five months later, but soon returned. Her prints, her woodblocks, her sketches all got packed into a trunk and sent to her nephew. Fannie died in 1931, and in 1935 Edith returned to West Virginia – to the dirty, crowded Huntington State Hospital. She died on July 19, 1957.

Prints in the Attic

Edith’s nephew Eddie Vossler married a woman who had a brother. One day in the early 1960s Eddie’s brother-in-law’s family came to West Virginia for a visit. His sister-in-law, Polly Anderson, cajoled his wife, Betty, into exploring their attic. There they found the trunkful of Edith Lake Wilkinson’s artwork.

According to her daughter, Polly said, “My God, Betty, do you know what you have?” Betty let Polly take the paintings to her home in Northern California, where they formed the backdrop of her daughter Jane’s childhood.

Jane, like Edith, was gay, and, like Edith, moved to New York City as a young woman and studied art. She visited Provincetown to find out more about her great-aunt, but no one had heard about her.

Jane became a filmmaker, and in 2015 made a documentary called Packed In A Truck: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson. In the process of discovering her grea- aunt, she found a white line woodblock that Edith dated to 1913 — one year before the earliest white line woodcut by Nordfeldt

Rediscovery of Edith Lake Wilkinson

Anderson felt she owed it to her great-aunt to get her work back in the public eye. White line woodcuts had already made a comeback by the time the film premiered.

In the late 1970s, Print Review assigned a story about the Provincetown Printers to a writer named Bill Evaul. A few of the original members survived, and from them Evaul learned how to make a white line woodcut. He mastered the art himself, taught it and promoted the genre.

By the 1980s, museums and galleries revived the work of the Provincetown Printers. In 1983-84, the Smithsonian American Art Museum showed 75 Provincetown prints. And In 2004, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston held an exhibit of the art of Blanche Lazell.

Woodcut by Kate Hanlon

The work of Edith Lake Wilkinson, though, did not appear in those exhibits. Anderson’s documentary changed all that. In 2013, the Larkin Gallery in Provincetown held a one-woman show of her work. And in 2016, the Huntington Art Museum held A TALENT FORGOTTEN: The Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.

And in 2016, Bakker Auctions held a show of eight women artists from Provincetown. In the catalogue, the auction house describes

This tragic example of the precarious standing of women in the early 20th century is also a classic story of the female artist disappearing into historic obscurity.

If you’re interested in the art of the white line woodcut, check out Kate Hanlon’s website: https://www.katehanlon.com/teaching.

Images: Monongahela By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34635675. Edith Lake Wilkinson By Unknown author – http://www.edithlakewilkinson.com/about/chronology, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70173045. With thanks to Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson. This story was updated in 2022.

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