james edward deeds

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In 1970, a teenager found a hand-made album in a pile of trash in Springfield, Mo. Inside, there were 283 drawings of trains, cars, animals and portraits of people with haunting, circular eyes that stared dead ahead. The album had no name or signature, and each picture was drawn on stationary that belonged to State Hospital No. 3, an old mental institution in Missouri.

The album eventually made its way to an art dealer who discovered the artist’s identity and has now published the works in a book called The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3. The book explains that the artist, James Edward Deeds Jr., spent most of his adult life as a patient at State Hospital No. 3, and the story of how he got there goes back to his childhood.

With Just Pencil And Paper, A Patient Found Escape Inside State Hospital No. 3

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The Electric Pencil – A man draws for 37 years from the State Lunatic Asylum No. 3

The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3
by James Edward Deeds Jr. (author) and Harris Diamant (foreword)
Princeton Architectural Press
2016, 272 pages, 7.5 x 9.5 x 0.8 inches (softcover)
$22 Buy a copy on Amazon

Back in the 1970s, a 14-year-old boy walking down a residential street in Springfield, Missouri found a cool-looking handmade, hand-bound book in a pile of trash. He opened the book to find 283 drawings, each on a ledger sheet with either “State Hospital No. 3” or “State Lunatic Asylum No. 3” printed at the top. The drawings depicted people in 19th-century clothing, Civil War soldiers, steamboats, antique cars, animals, and brick institutions. The boy held on to the book for 36 years.

In 2006, the boy (now obviously a man) decided to unload the art portfolio. He also wished to remain anonymous and, after contacting a retired professor of Missouri State University about the book, he vanished from this story without a trace. After a couple of bounces, the book ended up in the hands of art dealer and artist (fabulous sculptor!) Harris Diamant, who researched and traced the mysterious art book back to its original owner.

The creator of the book was James Edward Deeds Jr., born in 1908 and raised on a farm in southwestern Missouri. He resisted working on the farm, butt heads with his authoritarian father, and by the time he was 28 he was labeled as “insane.” He was admitted to the State Hospital No. 3 and stayed there for 37 years.

The Electric Pencil, the name of this book as well as the name given to Deeds before his identity was discovered, is a complete collection of Deeds’ artwork. He numbered each piece at the top with a pencil. His pencil and crayon drawings - perhaps journal entries of sorts – never expressed violence, but instead were mostly wide-eyed portraits, still lifes and domestic, often calming pastoral images. As Diamant says in the foreword of the book, which was just released today, “Edward’s story speaks to the human need to communicate – and the artist’s need to make work in spite of horrendous circumstances.” – Carla Sinclair

March 29, 2016