In the early 20th century, Edith Lake Wilkinson was an unconventional woman.
An artist who left her home in Wheeling, West Virginia to pursue art in New York City, her bohemian lifestyle eventually led to her institutionalization. She would have remained unknown save for the discovery of several packed trunks of her artwork.
That's the focus of a new HBO documentary that follows Wilkinson's story, one partially told through the music of Fort Collins singer-songwriter Danielle Anderson – best known as Danielle Ate The Sandwich. Someone who is just as unconventional in her music.
"How do I do this? I don't know," Anderson questioned while working on the soundtrack. "She was older than me. She, like, lived so long ago. I don't want to, like, offend her by singing lyrics about hot dogs like I usually do."
You see, Anderson is known for being - quirky. But Michelle Boyaner – one of Anderson's biggest fans, a friend, and also the director of Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson – saw beyond that quirkiness.
"I could see in Danielle that she'd be able to do it," Boyaner said. "And I could also see that she might not believe that she could do it."
So she asked her to think about this project a little differently.
"Don't be intimidated by the word composer," Boyaner told her. "And don't be intimidated by the word score. Let's just think of it as – we're creating pieces of music that are going to help us tell the story, you know. And it was just baby steps really."
Anderson started her work by writing letters to the long-gone artist: "…Edith – today, I broke up with my boyfriend. What do I do? What do you think about God? Do you believe in God?"
"I was just writing my own dumb thoughts about my selfish life and whatnot," Anderson said. "I wrote letters to her to try and get closer – and I don't know if it was a successful exercise but it did just kind of open up a conversation."
The more she wrote, the more she realized how much they actually had in common. Holding the very sketchbook that the artist had worked from, Anderson began connecting with the painter.
Sometimes it was like Edith Lake Wilkinson was right there…
"So anytime I was working on something, and if I got moved, I got goosebumps or something, I was like, it's her, it's her, she's brushing my face with her fingers," Anderson said. "But nothing extremely unexplainable happened. But I like to think she was in the room… was like, you're doing fine kid. You got it."
As you may have caught in the letter addressed to Wilkinson, Anderson was going through a breakup while she wrote the soundtrack. She'd moved to Minneapolis for a man. When the relationship ended, Anderson was faced with a tough decision – stay there or come home to Fort Collins, Colorado.
It spawned the song, "Coming Back Down."
"One of the verses in the song is like, 'there is a path many have chosen and those on the course are given warning,'" Anderson said. "And it's about artists in general, anybody who does something kind of contrary to society and people go, you're gonna regret it."
Edith too, lost a lot for love.
Wilkinson's great niece, Jane Anderson, (no relation to Danielle), explained that Wilkinson had a companion named Fannie. At the time, homosexuality was extremely taboo, it may have even been part of the reason for the artist's commitment to a mental asylum, Anderson said.
Wilkinson's bravery against the norms of society at the time was part of the inspiration for another song for the documentary, "Caught in a Moment."
During the song's bridge, Danielle Anderson sings, "they say I was wrong to be loving you… they say it's a choice to be loving you, if it was a choice then every day I'd choose you."
It's a moment of clarity for Wilkinson, the singer-songwriter explains.
"You can say I'm crazy but there's one thing I know for sure you can't take away from me, it's who I am and what I did and who I loved."
While Edith Lake Wilkinson died an unknown artist, the documentary's director Michelle Boyaner hopes this is where Anderson's career gets the attention it deserves.
"I mean, she should absolutely just explode out of a confetti canon after this, is what I'm hoping," Boyaner said.
As for Anderson. Her reaction is – you guessed it – quirky.
"There's big hope for me, that like, I'll become a rich and famous singer-songwriter who hangs out with handsome celebrities," she joked, adding: "But if nothing comes from it, other than what's already come, I'm an extremely lucky human being. Cause I've been given a lotta, lotta, lotta, good personal successes, good emotional successes, great times with the filmmakers, with Edith - so life is good, man. Life is good."