Edward Deeds [left]
"Lost for years, drawings and artist find acceptance"
May 4th, 2013
The Kansas City Star
A simple drawing, done with pencil on ledger paper, shows two hats, side by side.
One is a variety of top hat, the other a stocking cap with a long tail, tapering to the side.
Below, the artist has written, “WO MULE.”
Feel free to have a go at the artist’s message. He can’t help because he died in 1987. But Edward Deeds didn’t draw for you anyway, or for the art experts and critics now trying to understand his work.
As a young man on a south Missouri farm in the 1920s, he angrily chased his younger brother with a hatchet. Already an unruly, odd sort — prone to laugh for no reason — and a profound annoyance to his strict father, Deeds would eventually be diagnosed insane and committed for life to State Lunatic Asylum No. 3 in Nevada, Mo.
For the next 40 or so years, trapped inside the sprawling, red brick asylum with Gothic towers, Deeds drew pictures. Not for money or fame or any future eye. His future was there, the drawings his alone. He drew on plain ledger paper, both sides, paying no mind to the mental institution’s letterhead at the top and “Balance Due _$” at the bottom.
Portraits, landscapes, animals with hats. Some with cryptic captions.
If a 14-year-old boy hadn’t fished the drawings from a trash heap, nobody would be talking about Edward Deeds today. He wouldn’t be the hit of the outsider art world. And 283 drawings by this Ozarks farm boy who liked to hunt squirrels would not be priced at $16,000 per page (two drawings, front and back) at a New York gallery and on exhibit at a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“Here was somebody who was essentially discarded,” said Neville Bean, a New York art designer whose husband bought Deeds’ album on eBay before the artist had even been identified. “His father didn’t want him around. He disappears into this giant Victorian institution.
“How moving is it that his art is now out in the world and this voice is finally being heard?”
What happened to Deeds was not uncommon. The asylums and giant state hospitals of the early past century held thousands, sometimes for the convenience of a family as much as compassion for a patient.
“Back in those days, a diagnosis was very subjective and anybody could petition a judge,” said John Emerick, medical director for New Directions Behavioral Health in Kansas City.
In the 1950s, antidepressants and drugs such as Librium, Thorazine and lithium began to lay the foundation for the modern era of psychiatric medicine. Today, according to Emerick, someone like Deeds would probably be put on medication and treated as an outpatient.
Family members say that although Deeds may well have been mentally ill, he wouldn’t have hurt his brother that day. They tell about the time he jumped in a river and saved that same brother, Clay, from drowning.
Clay’s daughter, Tudie Williams, said her dad lived the rest of his years with guilt.
“My father was a tough man, but sometimes at night he would cry, and we knew it was for Edward,” Williams said.
What truly got Edward Deeds put away was a fanciful spirit. He liked hunting and fishing and art more than plowing, something his father would not accept. Williams and her sister think Uncle Edward might have been autistic or hyperactive — certainly nothing deserving of banishment for life to an asylum.
But then came electroconvulsive therapy — ECT, also known as shock treatment, in which voltage high enough to cause seizures was shot into his brain.
In several of Deeds’ drawings, he perhaps makes reference to the ECT treatment. One, for example, shows a woman in a quill hat holding a bouquet of flowers. Above her is written “ECTLECTRC” next to a pencil.
Harris Diamant, the New York sculptor who bought Deeds’ work, thought him dyslexic and figured he meant “electric.” So Diamant, before Deeds’ identity was known, dubbed the artist “The Electric Pencil.”
Another possible allusion to ECT might be the eyes in Deeds’ portraits. Gaping but empty, disassociated. Like doll eyes. Haunting despite the fine draperies that frame the tidy faces.
Eyes from a land of electroconvulsive therapy?
One such portrait Deeds labeled “WHY DOCTOR.”
Diamant rushed into his apartment one day seven years ago and spread a bunch of drawings on his dining table.
He’d bought them from a man who had snagged the album on eBay for around $10,000 but soon suffered buyer’s remorse. He was a collector, not a dealer. So he contacted Diamant, who he knew had bid on the drawings earlier, and asked whether he was still interested.
“Absolutely,” Diamant told him and soon headed to Boston to swing a deal.
Diamant said he trembled when he looked at the drawings on his table that day.
“Content, form, color — gorgeous and nothing like I’d ever seen,” Diamant recalled in a phone interview from New York. “Those eyes … that stare. I knew the person who did these had a very unique view of the world.”
But he didn’t know who that person was. The artist had meticulously numbered each of 283 drawings but signed none. What Diamant had was a starting point. The letterhead on many album pages: State Lunatic Asylum No. 3 on some, State Hospital No. 3 on others.
For the next five years, Diamant and Bean tried to solve the mystery of the unknown artist. They made a short documentary film about “The Electric Pencil.” Bean put together a book. The couple traveled to Missouri, even hired a private detective.
During this time, The New York Times singled out the drawings of “The Electric Pencil” as being some of the most admired work at an outsider art fair.
Finally, on a winter day in 2011, a woman named Julie Phillips, while at work at her job in Springfield, glanced through a copy of the Springfield News-Leader and saw a drawing of a woman in a quill hat. Big eyes, pursed lips.
The newspaper story was about Diamant’s attempt to find the creator of some drawings.
Phillips looked close at the woman in the hat. She knew she’d seen her before. The drawing had been in her house.
“That’s Uncle Edward’s,” she whispered to herself.
Edward Deeds was born in 1908 in the Panama Canal Zone.
He was named after his father, who served in the Navy, and would be the oldest of five children.
When the father’s service was up, the family settled on a farm on the banks of the Finley River in Christian County, Mo. Chickens, turkeys, maybe a hog or two. Ed Deeds raised cattle, and his wife, Clara, became known for her Concord grape jelly.
Ed expected his oldest son to take a leading role in helping out on the farm, but Edward was more likely to pull pranks, goof around and be off hunting or fishing when work needed to be done. He cried and laughed at odd times and for no reason.
Things got so bad that when the family moved into a newer house on the property, Edward was made to stay behind in the old place. According to family lore, the end came when Clay went over to the old house and tormented Edward. The two got in a fight, and Edward grabbed the hatchet.
Ed Deeds, fed up, petitioned the court to have his son committed. The boy was out of control — obstinate and destructive, might even be colorblind, the father told officials. A decision was made to send Edward to the Missouri State School for the Feeble Minded in Marshall, Mo.
Edward, 18, promptly tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze from the family’s Model A Ford. He didn’t want to leave home.
Doctors in Marshall soon determined him to be beyond their care. They labeled him insane and shipped him off to the lunatic asylum in Nevada.
Family members would visit often over the years, but not his father.
“Once my grandfather put him in, that was it,” Williams said from her home in Hawaii.
She and her family sometimes picnicked on the grounds of the asylum. Deeds always had his drawing tablet with him, Williams remembers. Once, when she was 6 or so, he asked her to draw a rainbow. She got her crayons out and did. Very bold colors, firm lines.
“That’s not a rainbow,” he told her. “Rainbows are fluffy.”
Then he drew one.
“That’s the one that’s in the album,” she said.
As time passed, Deeds withdrew and became sullen, hardly talking during family visits.
Paolo del Vecchio, director of the federal Center for Mental Health Services, said the only people confined for years these days are those like Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Del Vecchio’s take on Deeds’ drawings: “Remarkable.”
At some point, Deeds gave his handsewn album to Clay. But in 1969 when the family moved, Clay Deeds told the moving crew they could help themselves to anything left in the attic. That’s where the album was.
“My mother was so furious with him for years after that,” Phillips said. “We just knew it was gone forever.”
It would have been if not for the 14-year-old who not only pulled it from a trash bin in Springfield but then held on to it for 35 years. By then a Texas truck driver, he sold the album on eBay because he needed money, according to Bean.
Deeds’ work is what’s known as outsider art, meaning it doesn’t come from the traditional art world and the artist is not formally trained. The plantation drawings of Bill Traylor, a former slave, would be an example.
The backstory is always a big part of outsider art, said Tom Parker, associate director of the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York, the sole representative of Deeds’ drawings.
“They create against the odds,” Parker said Friday.
After Deeds’ work came to light in 2011, but before he had been identified, Lyle Rexer, a curator at the School of Visual Arts in New York, wrote of the mystery artist: “He may have models in mind, but they are overwhelmed or transformed by his imaginative conceits. This is not conceptual design making, but something that lies much deeper in the body and psyche of the artist.”
Now there’s a bookish mouthful about an Ozarks hill boy.
In 1973, Deeds, deemed harmless, was discharged to a nursing home in Ozark, Mo. He had been confined for nearly a half century, a life lost to a harsh time.
“But he drew,” said Phillips, a niece. “With all that separation and loneliness and thinking his life would always be inside that place, he drew. Now the world is finally hearing him. And we are all proud of that.”
She visited her uncle in the nursing home shortly before he died.
“He was old then, very gentle with kind eyes,” she remembered. “He usually looked down, like he didn’t want to be noticed.”
Edward Deeds died on a winter day in 1987, never knowing the hoopla his drawings would later stir. He hadn’t drawn for years because of arthritic hands. He filled his final days tending tomato plants he grew in pots.
“They told me close to the end that he had difficulty sleeping,” Phillips said, “that he would sit up for hours, through the night, in a chair.”
He was buried in a family plot not far from the old farm, the place he never wanted to leave.
Finally free, finally home.
"Who is the “Electric Pencil”?"
February 9th, 2011
The New Yorker
In 1940, a fourteen-year-old boy saved an abandoned pile of artwork from a mound of trash off Seminole Street in Springfield, Missouri. The drawings, rendered on double-sided ledger paper, were charming depictions of women in quill hats, military men, deer, and horses, and spoke to a whimsical fascination with hillside animals. Some of the pages are printed with the letterhead “State Hospital No. 3,” an institution in Missouri that underwent several name changes; it had over the years been referred to as “Lunatic Asylum No. 3” and "State Hospital for the Insane No. 3.” The entire collection of drawings will be released next month in a fully illustrated, hundred-and-sixty-page hardcover volume called “The Drawings of the Electric Pencil.”
The artwork itself is fun to look at, more so because it whispers to the unsolved mystery of its creator. The artist’s identity remains unknown: the name “Electric Pencil” was invented by Harris Diamant, the art collector who now owns the drawings. For years, Diamant has been searching for the true identity of the Electric Pencil (he even hired a detective), and he has only recently made headway. In an e-mail he told me that he has been communicating with someone who believes the Electric Pencil may be her uncle: “I seemed to have just discovered the actual identity of the ‘E.P.’ It's not yet verified so I can't say much beyond that.”
It is believed that the drawings of the Electric Pencil are prime examples of outsider art, created by a patient at the mental institution named on the paper. Lyle Rexer, an art critic and curator who teaches at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, writes an insightful essay in the book’s introduction that gives an analytical critique of the Electric Pencil’s artwork:
The artist was meticulous for the most part in using the rule lines of the stationary as a guide to make sure his figures were oriented on the age, although his dyslexia prevented him from recognizing copying errors. Yet his precision and rigidity are less about fidelity to models than they are about trying to bring his visual fascinations in line with his ability. He may have models in mind, but they are overwhelmed or transformed by his imaginative conceits. This is not conceptual design making, but something that lies much deeper in the body and psyche of the artist.
Many more drawings...
The Electric Pencil: Drawings by Edward Deeds
The Drawings of the Electric Pencil
And the film...
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