James Edward
James Edward Deeds, Jr. [a.k.a. The Electric Pencil] (1908-1987)

Rightly or not, over the last half-century, hundreds of artists have benefitted from the all-inclusive “outsider artist” label that seems to embrace all things naïve, self-taught, or folksy. But only a handful has emerged from obscurity who, through their remoteness of circumstance and purity of vision, truly embody the artistic spirit of painter Jean Dubuffet’s celebrated term art brut. In American art one can point to Bill Traylor, the former slave-turned-farmer who moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and, at age eighty-five, began painting on scraps of cardboard from his sidewalk perch; or the orphan and recluse Henry Darger, who worked as a custodian and lived in a tiny apartment in Chicago where, unbeknownst to anyone, he wrote more than 25,000 pages of fiction and memoir while painting hundreds of fanciful works, some the size of murals; and there is Martín Ramírez, who migrated from Mexico in search of work but was soon institutionalized for schizophrenia and spent most of his adult life in California’s state hospital system making elaborately patterned designs on examining-table paper. To this list of remarkable individuals can now be added the freshly discovered James Edward Deeds, Jr., previously dubbed The Electric Pencil, a near life-long patient at State Lunatic Asylum, No. 3 in Nevada, Missouri.

A case of pure serendipity, Deeds’s known body of work survives in the form of a single, hand-sewn album containing 140 crisply executed, double-sided, drawings. In 1969, the album, as part of the contents of the artist’s brother’s attic, was given to movers in payment for their service. It was soon discarded as valueless and then rescued from a trash heap by a 14-year-old boy who quietly safeguarded the opus for the next thirty-six years, ultimately selling the book in 2006.

The emergence of such an extraordinary and heretofore unknown collection of works touched off a scramble for the artist’s identity. In the meantime, the artist was assigned the sobriquet “The Electric Pencil” based on an enigmatic title inscribed at the top of drawing no. 197. The works are, in fact, filled with tantalizing names, words, people and places, but nothing revealed the identity of their creator except for one remarkably obvious clue that belied the artist’s circumstance whenever he put pencil to paper. Invariably, the drawings are executed on the official ledger paper of the institution that was the center of the artist’s existence for more than fifty years – “State Hospital No. 3,” or “State Lunatic Asylum, No. 3.” It is an almost poetic detail, the indisputable manifestation of the artist’s predicament, in bold type, and on every page; much in the same way that Bill Traylor’s scrap cardboard bears witness to the artist’s poverty.

Even with the search for The Electric Pencil targeted to the Missouri area, it took five years and multiple articles in a Springfield, Missouri, newspaper to capture the attention of the artist’s nieces, who recognized not only the hand, but individual drawings, and recalled visiting their “Uncle Ed” at the hospital in Nevada, and watching him draw. From them a portrayal of this elusive artist has emerged.

James Edward Deeds, Jr., was born in Panama in 1908 to Edward Fount Deeds and Clara M. Deeds. The Deeds family was stationed at the Panama Canal Zone while the elder Deeds served military duty as paymaster aboard the USS Marblehead. In 1912, the Deedses returned to Clara’s family homestead in McCracken, Missouri, where they settled as farmers. Edward, the eldest, had three sisters, Helen, Dorothy and Josephine, and a brother, Clay. Family accounts paint Edward as a well-meaning but increasingly troubled youth, with difficulty adjusting socially. Hindsight suggests Edward’s condition may have been a form of high-functioning autism complicated by a disciplinarian father incapable of nurturing a child with special needs. As Edward aged into his teens, father and son clashed at every turn. At some point the boy was relegated to an outbuilding, the first salvo in his father’s quickening campaign to isolate him from the family. Eventually Edward’s frustration erupted in a threat of violence that prompted the father to seek hospitalization for his son. Fearing a looming separation from his family, Edward attempted suicide, an act of desperation that would institutionalize him for life.

Edward Deeds was committed to Nevada’s sprawling mental hospital at the age of seventeen. He would live there involuntarily for the next fifty-two years. An enormous, palace-like structure with flamboyant Second Empire-style architecture, formal gardens and on-site factories and farms, State Hospital No. 3 was conceived under the popular Kirkbride plan, the predominant design theory behind mental institutions of the 19th century. Through a practice he termed “Moral Treatment,” psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride promoted the design of grand utopian sanctuaries that sought to rehabilitate patients by surrounding them with beauty, spaciousness, and outlets for productivity.

Deeds may well have enjoyed the benefits of Moral Treatment and its elegant trappings during his early years in Nevada. But as the twentieth century wore on, any idealism in America’s healthcare system inevitably gave way to budget cuts and overcrowding as state institutions became convenient dumping grounds for society’s unwanted. Over the course of his long tenure at the hospital, Deeds undoubtedly experienced changes in the quality of life there. 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 talisman.

Deeds’s drawings, using mostly crayon, pen and ink, and pencil, are delicately executed. They 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, however, 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 word “ECTLECTRIC” in drawing no. 197. What at first glance seems an awkward, dyslexic attempt to spell “electric” may instead be a purposefully coded sign of the artist’s acute distress. Elsewhere ECT is subtly etched into the façade of an architectural rendering (no. 94), or more prominently beneath a cigar-like form that might also be interpreted as the notorious “bite stick” used in administering ECT (no. 95). More indirectly, and perhaps most profoundly, is the portrait of a gentleman with a curious top hat, like a circus ringmaster’s, and the words “WHY. DOCTOR” (no. 33).

The subjects of the drawings can be loosely categorized into several groups: machines, especially vehicles like boats, trains, and cars; wild and domesticated animals and birds; people, mostly adults; architecture and formal gardens; and landscapes. All share a meticulous, stylized draftsmanship that is the artist’s own. Psychologists have noted there is a degree of proportional and linear exactitude across all the subjects that reflects the obsessive precision and rigidity of an autistic mind (see Susan Scheftel, “The Electric Pencil: Using Art to Diagnose the Artist: Diagnosing the Artist through his Works” [www.medscape.com]). Balance, order and repetition seem paramount. Lines are unerringly straight, shoulders level, bricks numbering in the thousands perfectly measured. Favorite motifs recur throughout: plumed feathers, eagles, stars, smokestacks, “coon-skin” caps, quills, coins, clocks, and watches. Themes explored in some depth include the circus, the Civil War, politics, garden design, architecture, famous horses, athletes. Almost all are brought to life with various titles and annotations that are creatively spelled and often puzzling.

Visual sources for each drawing have proven mostly elusive. Some likely stem from National Geographic magazines sent to Deeds by his family, or from books he had access to in the hospital’s library, portraits in its halls, first-hand experiences both in the hospital and its environs, and of course his own rich imagination. Not surprising are the surreal elements in many of the drawings. For instance, in spite of their detailed complexity, the vast array of boats, cars and trains are fascinating for their toy-like appearance. There is a preposterousness to the boats in particular, and many are fitted with loops on the bow as if for a pull string. Meanwhile Deeds’s menagerie of elephants, horses, monkeys, cats, rats, raccoons, and deer represents the artist at his most charming, whimsical and symbolic. But it is the portraits, with their arresting gaze, odd vintage costumes and elaborate accoutrements, that are perhaps his most ambitious, inspired, and unforgettable images. They are also Deeds’s 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. If that formulaic style indicates how Deeds liked to draw faces, it might also reflect how Deeds saw faces: all attention on the eyes, the proverbial “windows of the soul;” then the nose, a curious three-dimensional artistic challenge; then the mouth, and the empty words it spews, far lower on the artist’s hierarchy. What uniqueness the artist could not, or would not, give to his sitters’ faces, is instead imparted through their trappings and accoutrements. Attention is lavished on feathered hats, braided hair, trim costumes with elaborate patterning, ribbons and bows, and floral bouquets.

In 1977, at the age of 69 and declining in health, Deeds was determined by his doctors not to be a danger to himself or others. He was released to a nursing facility in Ozark, Missouri, and died at that institution ten years later.