Print this ArticlePrint this Article Email this ArticleEmail this Article
Text Size: A | A | A

Drawings from State Lunatic Asylum No. 3

Art created during lifetime in mental asylum becomes hit in outsider art world
Buy This Photo
Edward Deeds drew pictures during the four decades he was committed to the State Lunatic Asylum No. 3 in Nevada, Mo. Deeds died in 1987 and his art is now being celebrated by the art world after it was rescued from the trash.MCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 09, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A simple drawing, done with pencil on ledger pager, shows two hats, side by side.

One 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.

When a young man on a south Missouri farm in the 1920s, he angrily chased his younger brother with a hatchet. Already an odd, unruly 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. 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 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, Mo.

In the 1950s, anti-depressants 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 such as Deeds likely would be put on medication and treated as an outpatient.

Family members say that while 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 may 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.

Family members would visit often over the years, but not Edward's father.

"Once my grandfather put him in, that was it," Tudie 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 persons confined for years these days are those such as Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Del Vecchio's take on Deeds' drawings: "Remarkable."


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK