James Edward Deeds Jr. was destined to be a completely unknown artist.
Declared insane in 1936 at the age of 28, Deeds spent his life in a Missouri mental hospital known as State Lunatic Asylum No. 3, where he drew prolifically. When he died, his art ended up in a family member’s attic, forgotten. Eventually, movers threw it out with the garbage in the 1970s. A neighborhood kid noticed a book of drawings and pulled it out of the trash. He secreted the book away for 40 years until he decided to sell the drawings—setting in motion a years-long process of identifying the artist with the help of a private investigator.
It’s a string of unlikely events that spans almost a full century, and seems almost magical in scope. Against all conceivable odds, Deeds wasn’t forgotten. His drawings have their own book: The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3, published this spring by Princeton Architectural Press. "The drawings shouldn’t have been found," writes Richard Goodman in the introduction, "but they were."
The book contains almost 300 pencil drawings done on official stationary from the hospital, showing a strange, ethereal universe where humans, dressed impeccably in 1910s finery, stare with huge, oversized eyes. Steamships rule the rivers, while bobcats prowl and prize race horses posture. This world is populated by baseball players, magicians, Civil War soldiers, and boxers, who pose amid orderly Victorian facades inside what Goodman calls "the peaceable Midwest kingdom." It is a "serene, sweet world" of "imagined nostalgia" for the America of Deeds’ childhood, before he was committed.
Where did the title Electric Pencil come from? Deeds was subjected to electric shock therapy inside the hospital, which was common in asylums in the 1930s and '40s. Versions of the word "electric" appear several times in the drawings, Goodman explains. Below one portrait, there’s a pencil-like object—which may be "a device put in patients’ mouths when they were given shock therapy so they wouldn’t bite their tongues when convulsed."
It’s a glimpse into the brutal world of how mental illness was treated within the walls of asylums like the one where Deeds spent almost his entire life. Though the hospital was a sprawling, beautiful Victorian estate, founded under the progressive idea that the mentally ill should be treated with dignity and respect, life inside the asylum, punctuated by bouts of painful electric shock therapy, was likely dehumanizing for Deeds.
Yet he kept drawing—whether as a form of escapism, self-therapy, or simple stress relief. When he died in a nursing home in 1987, it would still be another 20 years before the artist and collector Harris Diamant would stumble across the drawings on eBay and track down the owner, ultimately hiring a detective to track down Deeds' family to find out more about the identity of the artist.
So, how should we understand the work of an artist who left behind no words, no clues to help us understand his work? Whose identity had to be tracked down with the help of a private eye, long after he died?
It would be very easy to call this outsider art, as Goodman points out. But "outsider art" is a pretty lame label, when you think seriously about it. It forces artists to exist outside of "proper" art history and culture and excludes them from serious study. Instead, Goodman argues that we should stop using the term "outsider art," and do away with the division between canonical art history and "folk" or "outsider" art altogether.
"If we’re going to use any term at all, it might be more appropriate to call the drawings of Edward Deeds ‘insider art,’" Goodman says. "He created his art inside an institution. He was never outside."
All Images: courtesy Princeton Architectural Press