Combine elements of forgotten family secrets, an unknown artist, and a little bit of luck, and the tale of “The Electric Pencil” reads like a page ripped from Faulkner’s notebook. This story begins in the Ozarks, continues in a mental institution, takes a detour to a trash heap, joins course with a New Orleans writer, and wraps up with the publication of a rare drawing collection in a fascinating new book, The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3.
“The story of an artist who was anonymous for quite a while moved me,” says the New Orleans writer Richard Goodman, who co-authored the book with the art collector Harris Diamant. “Each time I look at these drawings, I have a different feeling. When I first looked at them, I thought some of them were very strange. But the more I learned about the artist, the closer I felt to him and his work.”
In 1970, a teenager in Springfield, Missouri, was walking down the street when a book in a pile of trash caught his eye. The hand-sewn cardboard and leather portfolio was filled with ledger pages covered in otherworldly drawings. He saved the portfolio for decades until handing it over to an art professor in 2006. It changed hands many times, eventually landing with Diamant, who, as an artist and collector himself, made it his personal mission to identify the sketcher.
Diamant began his search with the inscription on the ledger sheets: State Hospital No. 3 Nevada, Missouri, an institution for the mentally ill. He contacted the Springfield News-Leader, which ran articles and photos of the drawings. In 2011, a Springfield woman reached out to Diamant. She would know those drawings anywhere, she said—they were surely the work of her late Uncle Edward. The family was devastated when they had lost the portfolio during a move.
With the family’s help, Diamant and Goodman teamed up to piece together the story of the mystery artist. “I wish I could talk to Edward and ask him some of the questions we have,” says Goodman. “He’s not here, but his drawings are. He would have been completely anonymous if not for a combination of luck, persistence, and destiny.”
What we do know is this: James Edward Deeds Jr. was born in 1908. He grew up on an Ozarks farm in southwest Missouri, where he enjoyed hunting and fishing. Deeds had difficulty learning and was possibly autistic. He had a volatile relationship with his father, who beat the boy and eventually sent him off to the State School for the Feeble Minded. He was later transferred to the sprawling state hospital in Nevada, Missouri. During family visits, Deed’s mother brought crayons. He spent his life institutionalized until his death in a nursing home in 1987.
Drawing was his escape into another world. Among his portfolio’s 282 numbered drawings are detailed brick buildings displaying signs for a silver smith, cotton mill, and “Home Sweet Home.” Other images show a garden plot, a banjo, a strutting turkey, a trout, and a man holding a glass of bourbon entitled “Good. Helth.”
“It must have given him so much solace in that place to be able to create this orderly world of art,” Goodman says. “There’s no violence. There’s not one angry look. After I looked at these for a while and let them sink in, I realized I’m spending time with a sweet soul, a kind heart.”
In one image, a woman in a plumed hat holds a bouquet. Deeds wrote “Ectlectrc Pencil” atop the drawing. At first, Diamant thought this was a spelling mistake. When he researched further, he learned Deeds was one of the earliest patients of Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and the title could have been his way of processing what went on at the hospital. That drawing inspired the collection’s name.
“I keep thinking it’s too bad he can’t see this,” Goodman says of the book and the fact that the drawings have exhibited across the country. “It’s a bittersweet thing, thinking if that kid hadn’t come along, these drawings would have been in a trash compactor. And now, it’s here for everyone to see. It’s the triumph of art—that this stuff somehow made it.”
The Electric Pencil is available from Princeton Architectural Press.