Elizabeth “Nut Lady” Tashjian, an Armenian American Outsider Artist


I’ve posted the whole series of photos and notes from Prof. Christopher B. Steiner’s lecture “Inside an Outsider Art: Paying a Visit to Elizabeth Tashjian’s Nut Museum,” which was part of the Armenian Diaspora Identity/Culture conference at Columbia University yesterday.

Considering I have a severe nut allergy, I found this character, who was raised on the Upper West Side and transplanted to a Connecticut Yankee neighborhood, riveting. During her “Nut Lady” period, Tashjian even got her own New Yorker cartoon (a pop culture trophy) and appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Check out all my Flickr pics (with narrative captions) here.

12 responses to “Elizabeth “Nut Lady” Tashjian, an Armenian American Outsider Artist”

  1. Silvina Der-Meguerditchian Avatar
    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

    Hi Hrag!
    I’m wondering… about one day full of exchange, a panel with 8 professional artists Armenian origin that have a lot to say, 7 of them alive, and among them one belonging to the generation of our grandparents and dead.

    You choose to report about the excellent and fascinating work and life of Elizabethe Tanjian excluding us from the context where her work was presented.

    I can only say:

    Best regards from Berlin

    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

  2. hv Avatar

    I found her particularly fascinating as an example of an outsider artist. And I’m sure there will be other opportunities to write about the talented people on the panel, including you Silvina.
    I didn’t really want to post a reportage of the event, my blog is about my personal perspective on things and that day Tashjian was the most eye-opening artist and touched me the most deeply.

  3. Silvina Der Meguerditchian Avatar

    It is about visibility. One of the problems that we pointed out (the orgnisators of the symposium “Speaking Beyon Living walls: The Armenian Diaspora and its Discontents” iniatiated by Neery Melkonian) and the participating artists was exactly the lack of visibility, 1. because we don’t have our own professional institutional structures, 2. because we have only a few Armenian professional artcritics and journalist passionated for our topics and language. To have a platform to speak about that in the Columbia was a very unique situation. I understand that critic is not only objective thinking, it is about taste too…
    But puting us as context where the work of E.Tashjian was presented, just only as name, you are not making a report or being unfaithful to your convictions and you could give us a bit visibility.

    The question is:
    why you would want to do so? or why not?

    Best regards
    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

  4. hv Avatar

    This is a very interesting debate and I’m glad you bring it up. I think it is partly because Tashjian is someone I have been interested in for years and the day of the conference I discovered she was also a more traditionally trained artist–the fact blew my mind.
    I enjoyed everyone’s presentation but I saw the forum as an opportunity to expand awareness of artists that up until now have been disconnected. I learned a lot but I was an observer/listener and enjoyed absorbing the info. I attended the event as a paying guest, so I don’t feel compelled to “report” the event but think about ideas that were of interest to me.
    I think the event presented an interesting foundation for future projects, collaborations, etc. But to be honest I felt it was a little random with no unifying threads…but having said that I do believe that those commonalities will eventually emerge as diasporan Armenian writers, artists, performers, etc. familiarize ourselves with each others work.
    Since my post on Tashjian, I’ve been thinking a lot about what she did take from Gorky, namely the ability to transform her persona into the “Nut Lady.” Harold Rosenberg long attributed to Gorky the whole idea of reinventing yourself that became a staple of the NY art scene (think Warhol), so I’ve been wondering how Tashjian connected to that.
    I would love to interview you for a future post, I hope you’ll let me. This is the kind of debate that I find fascinating.

  5. neery melkonian Avatar
    neery melkonian

    Dear Hrag, specially since I know you better then Silvina, I was somewhat surprised by your negligence too and here are my reasons.

    First,iIt’s common etiquette, and if I’m not mistaken also expected from most forms of art writing, to reference sources adequately.

    Next, and this is more important for me, on the one hand as you wrote you did not intend nor have to ‘report’ just because you attended an all day forum – something I can truly respect and understand – but on the other hand, you don’t hesitate to note that you did not feel there was a common thread on the artists panel, the proper title of which, by the way, is:

    Why have there been no great Armenian artists, since Arshile Gorky?
    Contemporary Armenian Art in a Transnational Context

    Now, just in case you are not familiar, the first part of the above title is an art historical appropriation referring to almost an identical question raised back in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s regarding the exclusion of women and African American artists from institutional spaces of the mainstream art world during those decades (can read respectively on both instances by googling Linda Nochlin and Michelle Wallace).

    As the organizer of Saturday’s two-part forum (the title of the first session was “Locating Culture in/of Dispersion) and by borrowing such a title for the second session, I am questioning the type of exclusion that today applies to Armenian artists who practice transnationally (incidentally i talked about all this in my morning intro).

    Add to the above argument my intended proposition that the 10 artist-panelists — five of whom get mentioned in the rather nice captioned photo you have included (thank you!) but the other five who remain nameless are: Jean Marie Casbarian (Amherst) Video & Photo Artist * Abelina Galustian (Los Angeles/Tehran) Painter *Hrayr Anmahouni (Los Angeles/Beirut) Interdisciplinary Artist, Writer, Filmmaker * Thea Farhadian (San Francisco) Sound Artist, Composer, Violinist and * Sivina Der Megerdichian (Berlin/Argentina) Installation Artist — SHOULD NOT HAVE to disguise their identity like Gorky did NOR should they have to assume the character of a NUT LADY as Tashjian did, in order to find their rightful place in contemporary society, be it American or Armenian. Judging from how both of these artists’ lives ended, such ‘re-inventions’ of one-self also pose limitations that seem to come with a high cost.

    Finally, the task of creating context, making linkages, and weaving ‘common threads’ among the 10 participating artists was trusted to the panel moderator/discussant, Radhika Subramaniam, who by most standards did a REMARKABLE job in doing just that, but maybe because you left early you were not able to hear or note her contribution.

    In any event, thanks Hrag for generating this discussion and giving us an opportunity to disagree. Best to you, Neery Melkonian

  6. Silvina Der-Meguerditchian Avatar
    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

    I would make an interview with pleasure.
    I agree with Neery, thanks for the discussion and give us the space to exchange.

    Kind regards from Berlin!
    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

  7. hv Avatar

    I am rather surprised at the sense of entitlement that both of you seem to feel regarding my blog and what I write. I guess I should be proud that you two take what I say seriously, so let’s leave it at that.

    I know this topic can be emotional for all of us because for too long we have been isolated and never had a venue to think through this together, even when we disagree.

    I am very familiar with Nochlin’s & Wallace’s writings but I think this is slightly different. I also shy away from transnational as a term in this context because it has its roots in economic thinking and corporations (like the East India Company). It is part of the reason that art fairs and biennials are starting to loose their appeal to me.

    Neery, I’m glad you mentioned the other artists since I couldn’t find a single event program when I left the forum to include them in the caption…I was working from memory.

    I look forward to seeing where this continues since my interest in Armenian art has long been more centered (or de-centered) on the diaspora than anything that occurs in Armenia.

  8. Silvina Der-Meguerditchian Avatar
    Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

    Dear Hrag, of course I take your writing and blog serious! I think you don’t realize how unique and important your doing is. If you know another writer, journalist, visual art critic from our generation Armenian origine, interested in contemporary art, living in a important capital of the world (or periferical city, doesn’t matter) that follows a certain structur (in this case your blog) depicting in an everyday basis, artistic manifestations from different context, including the Diasporan Armenian art field, please tell me.

    I think it is a big need to develope this practices and that this virtual spaces give the surface for exchange, dialogue, disagreement and the shaping of new “common” ideas, and all that will help to grow the caleidoscopical landscape that we are.

  9. neery melkonian Avatar
    neery melkonian

    hrag, you make compelling statements that beg some attention. i just wanted to add that the term ‘transnational’ (which i agree could be loaded and problematic) was defined in the intro of the forum to designate: beyond/outside nationalist framworks or paradigms. sometimes people use the term ‘diaspora’ interchangably, but for me the latter is more of a ‘condition’ whereas transnational often referrs to a ‘position’. i also use the term diaspora in a less classic/conventional manner (often associated with a nostalgia for a return to an originary homeland). for instance, one can feel ‘diasporic’ on his/her own land/country, as in the case of certain marginalized artists in armenia.. couple of whom participated in the forum, whereby the boundaries between inside/outside become more ambiguous .. in the case of elizabeth tashjian, as another example, the ‘armenian’ costums she wore to perform or act out her (exotic) ethnicity.. can (and should) also be seen as ottomon.. in any way, none of the panelists objected to the use of such terms and that indicative that they are comfortable with the (self) identification.

    i so much wish you would clarfy or elaborate for us as to how YOU think or find armenians are ‘different’ and why we can’t draw parallels with the black american or other feminist experiences.. i have tackled with this issue in this recent interview but we could use further articulations:


    last but not least, as you probaly know, women for too long have been dismissed as being ‘too emotional’ .. i find nothing wrong in expressing emotions specially in the least expected places, i.e. one of the most appreciated presentations in the morning session was lerna ekmekcioglu’s emotional address on the difficulties of being a turkish-armenian both in turkey and in the diaspora..

    thanks again, neery

    ps: i sent you a pdf file of the forum program, sorry we ran out, we would have made more then 80 copies had we gotten funding..!

  10. hv Avatar

    I’m going to give this some thought I post again about it. My ideas on the issue are evolving and beg some serious thought.

    In terms of “emotion,” I think that all great arguments stem from emotion but in order to communicate ideas in a forum where there is an expectation of generating more debate and not simply opinion they must be articulated in more objective terms.

  11. melissa dadourian Avatar

    Wow. This is so interesting and brings up so many thoughts that I find difficult to put into words at the moment. I just want to say thanks to Hrag for opening up discussions of this sort on his blog for the public to have access to. I look forward to reading more in the future. I do want to mention one thought that is in agreement with Silvina and the fact is we NEED you critics on our side or we will be constantly working in a vacuum. So dont forget about us!

  12. Christopher Atamiam Avatar
    Christopher Atamiam

    Hello guys,
    I thought I would stay ot of the “What Hrag should or shouldn’t write about” on his blog debate.
    The interesting part, to me, about Neery’s title for the conference refers back to Nochlin’s actual writings. In her now-classic “Feminist” treatise, if I remember correctly, Nochlin draws an analogy between women and aristocrats. That is to say that there are no great women artists fo rthe same reason that there are no great artists who are aristocrats: the roles, responsibilities and expectations from society, family etc have made it so that women (like Aristocras, like blacks) have not had the access, opportunity and permission to achieve great things in art. The entire apprentice system that wa sin place for hundreds of years in Europe guaranteed that only middle class (or poor) white men who found “master teachers” to take them in and teach them had the time, training and connections to make it in the art world. This seems bot intuitive and obvious in a sense, but it’s in fact revolutionary that Nochlin stated it in such terms, so clearly.
    With Armenians, of course, who have plenty of white men amongst their people! the reasons are multiple. I agree with Neery that Armenians are doubly marginalized- that undoubtedly plays a role. But as Silvina has suggested -and others (including Neery)-Armenian culture is the big culprit. Armenians until recently have not entered the mainstream-have not been cutting edge in the West at least and have not given themselves the liberty to be truly great in certain fields (classical music seems o be an exception and a logical one). If Saroyan could do it in 1930 whatever as a writer, then theoretically nothing is stopping Armenians today or in the recent past. I would suggest that it is the narrowing confines of much of Armenian society-the nationalism, conservatism,and often false sense of pride and accomplishment that is at play. Anyway, those are my two cents, for what they are worth. [And for what it’s worth I cannot stand Tom Friedman either (See Tabibi NY Press piece)]

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