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At the Limit of the Electric Pencil

“How many days and wages does it take to make it alone. That is a question to ask.”

– Gertrude Stein

One day in 1970, a young boy found an anonymous folio of drawings on a trash heap in Springfield, Missouri. These drawings were the product of some 37 years spent in State Hospital No.3, Nevada, by one James Edward Deeds Jr. admitted for ‘Dementia Praecox’ in 1936.

The drawings made an extraordinary circuit from the curious child to curiouser collectors, art dealers and art brut fetishists, from a private detective back to members of Deeds’ family and most recently, to the Princeton Architectural Press which has published them this year The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3 by James Edwards Deeds. This is the first time a name has been given to the artist. Earlier monographs referred to Mr. Deeds only as ‘The Electric Pencil’, a phrase which appears above one of his portraits and was also the name of an early Word Processor.

The drawings were done on blank ledger pages printed with the name of the asylum’s treasurer, J. R. Walton. They depict the faces of people, buildings, machines such as trains and hot-air balloons, flora and fauna and wild beasts. The human subjects stare ahead in the expressionless manner of the old daguerreotype: dignified, dead serious, with black eyes. But if no one cracks a grin in these portraits, no one screams either. The violence of the times is distinctly out of frame. Even the wild animals sit like tame playmates. We are shown innocent meadows with stern yet just guardians.

The machine subjects are the wonders of the 19th and the early 20th Centuries, such as the steamship, electricpencilthe locomotive, and the T Model Ford. Richard Goodman’s interesting introduction calls all of this an ‘imagined nostalgia’, as Deeds was from a poor family and spent most of his life institutionalized. But all nostalgias are imagined, are they not? Lines of opaque pain and longing leading always to a time never quite like it was, seen from a moving present never quite like it was.

Mr. Deeds also played word games with his captions. Deliberate misspellings of Electric as Ectlectrc and ECTlectric enclose the acronym ECT, or electroshock therapy. A portrait of a Western dandy apparently named ‘Hellow Gies’ might conceal Hello Guys. My Deer might be my dear (but shows a deer). Other titles are more mysterious: Bool Frog, Cat Rag, The Arkest Vocal, a man named Young Birdsong, and China Girl After Rats.

Doctors and Judges stare out in fine shaded lines. Clothes, tailors, furniture, a buzz saw wheel, ornate flower pots and vines (these are especially lovely), a circus, an elephant scratched into the red endpaper on the back cover. The Electric Pencil drew them all with the utmost care and with classical Chinese calm. I will not think of the knuckles on my father’s hand. I will not see the trench and the wide mouth. I will ignore the footprints on the moon. I will remain a model patient.

James Edward Deeds Jr. spent his life in a mental asylum, but of late, he has become an honored guest on the outside. This carries the vicious implication that survival by art is always possible and it suggests a fanatical truth: if one testifies in image or word, one will be saved. Life itself is never enough. They must talk to us, they must be interrogated, they must finally represent themselves and give us the confession we demand (which can only be our own confession), freely and of their own will.

The somewhat sentimental tale of the Electric Pencil’s resurrection from oblivion conceals a second and more complex burial. Perhaps Mr. Deeds wanted to convey nothing with his drawings and did them to merely pass the time or to enter fully into that time by filling it with profane images and intricate riddles. Time he saw only in the Civil War portraits drilled into him by his ninth grade education, summer days of the leisure class in magazines, remote green fields and the levers of progress which guided our tremendous machines. Killing time, he made a series of flat screens in a forgotten book until his hand became an arthritic knot. He should be allowed the right to depict the mere surface of things and to leave the depths of two centuries to those who confined him, men whose cruelty did not lack kindness and whose mercy only decided his case unequivocally before the law.

In order to do full and horrific justice to the world of illusions cobbled from our debris, Mr. Deeds created an isthmus with his drawings by which refugees from our world now seek to pass into his. Against this hostile takeover, as if by premonition, he erected his drawings on paper, immovable as mountains, discovered upon a mountain of garbage, in order to seal himself off from the dark waves of communication. This is as far as any analysis of the situation may go.

In memoriam, James Edward Deeds Jr., 1908-1987.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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