Elizabeth Tashjian, nut culturist, artist, and eccentric pop icon, passed away January 28, 2007, at Gladeview nursing home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.1 She was 94 years old.
Tashjian was most famous for her obsession with nuts—her Nut Museum, her nut songs, and her many appearances on late-night television with media personalities such as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Howard Stern.2 She often performed her original song about the beauty of nuts, the Nut Anthem, and carried a 35-pound coco de mer nut (Lodoicea maldivica, Palmae) from the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. She also spoke of creating a nut theme park on par with Disneyland, but Tashjian was no nut herself (though she has often been labeled as such)— she was an innovative artist willing to do anything necessary to spread the beauty of nuts.
“I think her pop celebrity [status] started out as her own desire to be ‘discovered,’” said Christopher B. Steiner, PhD, a professor of art history and museum studies at Connecticut College (email, May 9, 2007). “No one ever really knew if she was serious or ‘putting you on.’ That was part of her charm.”
Don Bernier, the director of her documentary titled, In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian, had a similar opinion of Tashjian: “Her humor was quite sophisticated, going well beyond the tired nut jokes that the media focused on,” said Bernier (email, May 15, 2007). In fact, he said that her obsession with the nut can all be traced back to a “basic, aesthetic appreciation for the nut as a physical object” and not because she was of the “twolegged variety.”
“She was always striving to be ‘original’ and I think her passion for nuts was one way to create original works,” said Dr. Steiner. “The nut was an antistatic vehicle for her to explore aesthetic and philosophical ideas about humanity, religion, and life.”
Born in Manhattan in 1912, she collected and painted nuts at an early age.1 She continued this passion at the New York School of Applied Design for Women and the National Academy of Design. Art critics tend to speak respectfully of her inventions:
Her paintings, sculptures, and assemblages display a familiarity with modernist art techniques and history. She workedin traditional genres: landscapes, portraiture, and especially the still life, many of which featured nuts as their subject. But late in her life, her aesthetic changed dramatically. Her paintings became visceral, her images grotesque, her colors garish, and her brush stroke expressive. Her works became increasingly whimsical, sexual, and ironic.3
For 30 years she ran a museum devoted to her nut paintings and sculptures out of her Gothic revival mansion.1 Her entry fee changed over time from 1 nut to $3 and a nut.
An admirer of her work, Dr. Steiner taught about her Nut Museum in his classes starting in 1997. When Tashjian slipped into a 2-week coma, Dr. Steiner saved her nut-inspired collection. He installed one exhibition of her work at Connecticut College and another at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
“When she regained consciousness she was relieved to learn that her art was safe,” Dr. Steiner said. Currently, her house has been sold and the museum dismantled, though Tashjian’s art and papers are kept in storage at Connecticut College. Dr. Steiner said he someday hopes to bring the collection back as a traveling exhibit as well as find a permanent home for the museum.
Tashjian is survived by several paintings she often referred to as her children and many admirers who saw her as much more than merely the Nut Lady.
—Kelly E. Saxton
- Martin D. Elizabeth Tashjian, 94, an expert on nuts, dies. New York Times. February 4, 2007;34.
- Cobb N. Discoveries: Her lifeworks causes Conn. college to go nuts. Boston Globe. January 4, 2003;C6.
- Russell C. The nut museum: visionary art of Elizabeth Tashjian. Raw Reviews. Fall 2004;53.