Edward Deeds

Talisman of the Ward

January 10 – February 9, 2013

Press Release

Hirschl & Adler Modern is pleased to announce the opening of Talisman of the Ward: The Album of Drawings by Edward Deeds on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Featuring a selection of thirty drawings, the exhibition represents many of the important themes found within the extraordinary album of James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908–1987), a near life-long ward of the state of Missouri and colorful mental patient at Nevada, Missouri’s State Hospital, No. 3.

Deeds was committed in 1936 to the state hospital, diagnosed with dementia praecox and schizophrenia. His drawings, measuring approximately 9 x 8 inches, were executed in graphite and crayon on the official ledger paper of the institution, where he remained for nearly four decades.

The drawings are delicately executed and share a meticulous, stylized draftsmanship that is the artist’s own. Deeds’s portraits, with their arresting gaze, odd vintage costumes and elaborate accoutrements, are perhaps his most ambitious, inspired, and unforgettable images. They are also his most distinctive contribution to the Outsider canon: each one featuring the same mesmerizing, enlarged pupils, gray-shaded or “smutty” noses, thin pursed mouths, and exaggerated chins.

The works are innocent, often fanciful, and notably devoid of suffering, violence, or the anger one might associate with an artist presumably under psychological or emotional stress. One glaring exception is the unmistakable recurrence of the initials, “ECT,” a probable acronym and thinly veiled reference to the controversial shock treatment known as electroconvulsive therapy. ECT appears in several drawings, most emphatically in the creatively spelled work “ECTLECTRIC” in drawing no. 197. What at first seems an awkward, dyslexic attempt to spell “electric” may instead be a purposefully coded sign of the artist’s acute distress.

It has been suggested that his drawings, with their vintage costumes, old-fashioned cars and boats, might be nostalgic odes to an earlier, bygone era. It is reasonable to assume that drawing was a therapeutic form of escape for Deeds. He carefully sewed each sheet into a crude, lovingly-made binding that, today, shows the wear of having been clutched unceasingly as a sort of palliative or even a talisman.

Due to worsening arthritis, Deeds stopped drawing by the mid-1960s and presented the album to his mother. That touched off a series of missteps that almost led to the album’s destruction but for the remarkable sensitivity of a fourteen year-old boy who plucked it from a curbside junk heap and safeguarded it for the next 36 years.

In 1973, at the age of sixty-five, the artist was released to a nursing facility in Christian County, Missouri, and died at that institution fourteen years later. Today, the pages of Deeds’s talisman album are carefully separated, conserved, and spread across the world with beauty and poignancy intact.

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