“The Nut Lady” Reconsidered

Elizabeth Tashjiaan, American painter, 1912-2007, by Peter A. Juley & Son, Smithsonian American Art

Looking at this photo of artist Elizabeth Tashjian in our new set of portraits of women artists at the Smithsonian Commons on Flickr, it seemed obvious to me that I was looking at a professionally-trained artist, who in fact, won prizes for her artwork while at the National Academy of Art in New York City during the 1930s. So, I was intrigued that the caption included with the photo by the American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, called Tashjian "The Nut Lady," and decided to learn more about this curious nickname.

As evidenced by this photograph of Tashjian standing next to a large paneled painting of hands holding a nut and a nutcracker, the artist considered the nut to be very beautiful and constantly used it as subject in her artwork. In 1972, she opened a nut museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut to display her work and champion the nut.

By the early 1980s Ms. Tashjian became a minor celebrity, demonstrating her passion for nuts and her quirky sense of humor in appearances on The Johnny Carson Show and other TV and radio talk shows, and garnering the support of a Roadside America fan club website that features some of her nut-themed anthems. However, the kitsch appeal of The Nut Museum and the somewhat eccentric approach that Ms. Tashjian took to her subject matter meant that the public was often disinterested in her artwork, focusing more on the unconventional nature of the artist herself.

Nevertheless, Tashjian left a powerful legacy of social commentary with her art when she died in 2007. She did not enjoy being called “The Nut Lady,” but Tashjian embraced the nickname, claiming that by owning it, she was removing “the demerit marks from the word ‘nut.’” If the nut were a much-maligned fruit also representative of the underdog status of some individuals in society, her artwork and The Nut Museum created a universe where the nut and its enemy, the nutcracker, could live together in peace. As she so astutely observed in a July 10, 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune, “I have set free ten million people who thought they were nuts. We all came from the same shell.”

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