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The Nut Museum archived: Professor saved artwork from being trashed

Settled on the ground floor of a Victorian homeaton 303 Ferry Road in Old Lyme were the entire masterworks of Elizabeth Tashjian, surrealist artist and owner of the famous Old Lyme Nut Museum.

Upon her death, Tashjian’s artwork was archived by Christopher Steiner, an Old Lyme resident who is professor of art history and anthropology at Connecticut College. Steiner gave a June 2 lecture about Tashjian June 2, sponsored by the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, intended to raise awareness about art preservation in general and Tashjian’s work in particular.

More than a decade ago, Tashjian’s art as well as her home was slated to be sold by the court tasked with disposing of her estate to pay off creditors and the town for back taxes. With Tashjian then in an Old Saybrook nursing home, the news came to the attention of Steiner.

“A friend had brought up to me that Elizabeth was sent to the hospital and that the state had found her to be incompetent,” said Steiner during the lecture’s introduction. “They had possessed her house and were aiming to sell everything to pay off her overgrown taxes.”

To prevent such actions, Steiner shared his concerns about the artwork with the judge of probate in Old Lyme, and a decision was made to donate all of Tashjian’s work to Connecticut College. This includes the many painted pieces and metal sculptures that Tashjian had done over her lifetime.

However, the judge gave Steiner just three hours to vacate all of the art and personal belongings before the home was closed off to be remodeled.

“We had managed to gather almost about 90% of the notes, papers, and artwork within the museum before the clean-up crews came by,” Steiner said.

The artwork now lines two cold storage units, all kept under climate-controlled conditions to prevent deterioration. A few pieces had to be culled out of the rescued work because significant color fading.

“There were art pieces that had to be tossed into the dumpster due to the lack of care taken to the museum itself and the materials used in the pieces degrading.” Steiner said.

Tashjian’s art would later be shown at several exhibitions locally, including Conn’s Shain

Library and Cummings Art Center as well as the nearby Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The Conn showings were hosted by Steiner himself and a select group of student assistants. The early exhibition in 2004 at the Lyman Allyn had the permission of the “Nut Lady” herself before her passing in 2007.

The four-month retrospective exhibit at the Lyman Allyn was curated by Steiner, who gave a lecture as well.

“I had the permission to organize and curate the event with Ms. Tashjian, who had visited the event during one of the four months in its run,” Steiner said, “She had even asked us to salvage the artwork and a few of her furniture and leftover knitted rugs before leaving the old museum.”

Steiner has now managed to use his former recovery mission and the stored art as a teaching tool for others to understand how to preserve historical art. In his museum studies certificate class at Conn, “Bad Art: Looking Beyond the Canon,” Steiner has used the Nut Museum archive to give students hands-on experience in studying art history.

“I wanted to influence my students into understanding the background for their interests in art, the background that goes into the many artists and their work that my own students study about,” he said.

Steiner concluded the lecture by revealing that a new exhibit of Tashjian’s work could soon be in the works.

“As of 2021, there has been talks about re-opening the Nut Museum artwork in another exhibition,” he said, though at the moment “Elizabeth Tashjian’s art remains in storage.”

Matthew Rascoe is a Times intern and student at Mitchell College.

 

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