Yesterday evening’s nationwide PBS broadcast of Kelly Rush’s new documentary short, Emery Blagdon & His Healing Machine, served as a reminder of just what it is that distinguishes the lives and careers of the most exemplary outsider artists. (The film can also be viewed on the website of Nebraska’s NET public-television network, which offers an informative Blagdon subsection.)
Until a decade ago, Blagdon’s sketchy biography and what he had accomplished had been known only through hearsay by some outsider art insiders, but in recent years, a fuller account of this remarkable self-taught artist, who died in 1986 at the age of 78, has come into sharper focus.
Rush’s film summarizes the discovery of this American autodidact’s work and brings the Blagdon story up to date with fresh research. It’s a tale that, for all the challenges and risks entailed in the conservation and preservation of fragile artworks, not to mention possible conflicts over ownership and inheritance issues or the potential for insensitive commercial exploitation of the work, actually turned out to have a happy ending.
Emery Blagdon was born in 1907 in central Nebraska, the oldest of his parents’ six children. In Rush’s film, the artist’s great-niece, Connie Paxton, who lives in Nebraska and was one of the extended family members who got to know Blagdon well, recalls that he had received an eighth-grade education but that he had realized early in life “that school would not hold his interest.” As a young man, Blagdon worked on a farm and also at a saw mill in the area of North Platte, the nearest large town. Later he traveled to the West Coast, where he worked as a gold prospector and as a saw mill hand. Years later, he returned to Nebraska when his mother fell ill. Like many of his family members, including his father and several siblings, Blagdon’s mother died of cancer.
In the film, Leslie Umberger, the curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., notes that witnessing human suffering up close had a profound effect on Blagdon. She says, “He began to devote his life” to finding a way by which “the power of the earth could be brought to bear in making a difference” in alleviating pain and suffering, and curing diseases. (Umberger, a former curatorial liaison to the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation on projects involving the preservation of works made by folk, self-taught and vernacular artists, has had considerable experience with such artists’ site-specific, whole-environment creations, a main concern of this cultural foundation. She was also formerly a senior curator of exhibitions and collections at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where she organized the 2012 exhibition Emery Blagdon: The Healing Machine.)
Blagdon, who was described by those who knew him as having been quite intelligent and not very talkative but not a total recluse, was in his late forties when he began producing his many hundreds of “pretties,” as he called them, including abstract paintings on board and sculptural objects made of wire, metallic foil, bottles, colored lights and assorted found materials. Blagdon believed that his creations, individually and together, possessed a healing power that could affect people in their presence. That is, just to be near them was to absorb a supposed electromagnetic energy their maker believed was soothing and curative. Blagdon created his “pretties” while living alone at his uncle’s farm, where, inside an 800-square-foot shed, he assembled those separate works into his multi-part “healing machine.”
Overall, few people ever saw it. However, based on her conversations with the few surviving sources who were close to Blagdon, Rush told me in a recent telephone interview, “He did invite some people over to see his work. Those who met him found him to be a gentleman, a generous person. He didn’t charge anything when he allowed someone to stand next to the ‘machine.’ He didn’t give away any of the components of the big work either, for he believed that all the pieces were integral parts of the big ‘machine.’”
As for its would-be healing effects, Rush added that, among the sources with whom she and her film-making team had spoken (her colleagues included cameraman/editor Charles P. Aylward and the late Nebraska public-radio veteran, Jerry Johnston), “many said they had not felt such energy when they visited Blagdon’s shed but they also did not consider him to have been mentally ill. Everyone realized Emery just marched to the beat of a different drummer.”
Absolutely central to the story of the rescue of Blagdon’s work are Dan Dryden, a New York-based sound engineer who has long worked with the Philip Glass Ensemble, and Dryden’s childhood friend, Don Christensen. The two men grew up in North Platte. In the mid-1970s, Dryden was operating a drugstore there when he first encountered Blagdon. In Rush’s film (and in a January 2004 New York Times article that I wrote about this subject, which effectively broke the Blagdon story), he recalls that an unusual-looking older man entered his store, approached him at the pharmacist’s counter and requested some “elements” for use in his “machines.” Dryden was intrigued. As it turned out, Blagdon wanted ordinary mineral salts like sodium bicarbonate. Later Dryden would visit Blagdon’s property and be invited to enter the shed.
Choked with emotion, Dryden tells Rush, “He opened the door, switched on some lights, and this rainbow of colored lights came on. I had never seen anything like it before and I’ve never seen anything like it since.”
Years passed, and, one after the other, Christensen and Dryden left Nebraska and headed to New York. In 1986, the two men returned to North Platte for a high school reunion and upon arriving found out that Blagdon had recently died. The artist had not left a will, so local officials were planning to unload his possessions in an open-to-the-public estate sale. A poster announcing that auction noted that items for sale would include tools, appliances, guns, furniture, a horse-drawn manure spreader and, in reference to the “healing machine” in the shed, “lots & lots of metal wire, fancy work.”
Dryden and Christensen trekked out to Blagdon’s property to check on the condition of that big work, concerned about what they might find there. In fact, they arrived to discover that the “healing machine” was safe and unharmed. In a 2004 interview, Christensen told me, “It was a wonderland, the product of an amazing intelligence.” The two friends decided to bid on the “fancy work” lot at the forthcoming auction, where, as Rush’s film points out, they found themselves bidding against Connie Paxton’s grandmother, a relative who had been close to Blagdon. She “did not want to see [Emery’s] work destroyed,” Paxton says in the film, but the older woman withdrew from bidding at a certain point, allowing Dryden and Christensen to win the contest.
Dryden tells Rush, “The only thing I can say about it is [that] the work found us. We didn’t know what we were going to find when we started really inspecting it. It was intimidating. There was a lot of material….” Or as Christensen told me ten years ago, “The gavel came down — and we became stewards of this man’s vision.”
Over the next eighteen years, at considerable expense to themselves, Dryden and Christensen stored the voluminous Blagdon oeuvre and began sorting out its parts. They created a classification system that included paintings; lamp-like hanging objects they dubbed “chandeliers”; wire-wrapped bundles; dangling, necklace-like strings of wire objects they called “cascades”; and other sculptural forms, which the artist had developed as integral parts of his larger work. They photographed their holdings, too.
By 2004, the job of caring for such a complex, fragile body of mixed-media artworks had become too costly and time-consuming, so Dryden and Christensen reached out to specialists with expertise in outsider art. Shari Cavin and Randall Morris of Manhattan’s Cavin-Morris Gallery, one of the most respected venues in the field, became their collaborators and guides to the art market. Dryden and Christensen’s goal: to find a reputable institution to acquire Blagdon’s body of work in its entirety, preferably one that was able to properly conserve it.
In Rush’s film, Cavin explains that she and Morris first mounted an exhibition of a selection of pieces from the larger Blagdon work at their gallery; they also brought some to the 2004 Outsider Art Fair in New York. Collectors reacted enthusiastically. “Shortly thereafter,” Cavin says in the film, “the Kohler Foundation stepped forward and purchased the entire remaining [Blagdon] environment and gifted it to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.” That museum’s 2012 exhibition displayed Blagdon’s cleaned-and-conserved masterpiece in a frame-like structure that nearly replicated his objects-filled barn. In that show, many parts of his “healing machine” were installed so that viewers could get a good sense of its original context and character. Other components of the big work — paintings and various sculptural objects — were also presented in a more conventional, museum-gallery setting to allow for closer inspection.
Rush’s short but informative documentary is especially valuable because it captures on film hitherto unheard-from sources, such as Paxton and the artist’s friend, Roger Neth. Their firsthand accounts offer rare glimpses of a man who appeared to be content, alone on his remote farm, engrossed in the making of his “healing machine.” In Rush’s film, Neth offers up such tidbits as the recollection that his pal Emery “never took a bath.” Neth says Blagdon told him, “I don’t believe in it. That’s where I get a lot of my power from.” Neth says, “He wore new overalls into town but took them off when he came home.”
In Emery Blagdon & His Healing Machine, Paxton notes that Blagdon lived with cancer himself for several years until he died. The advancing disease caused a crack to appear in his lip, and it became difficult for the old man to eat or talk. He refused to see doctors about his condition. Eventually his health deteriorated so much that he had to lock up his “shop,” as Paxton refers to Blagdon’s art-filled barn, and he never set foot in it again.
Dryden appears in Rush’s film as someone who was deeply moved by every aspect of his involvement with Blagdon’s “healing machine.” As he looks back on what he learned from its spirit, he says he admires the way in which Blagdon persevered, despite, Dryden surmises, having been gossiped about behind his back by rural and small-town people who would have dismissed him as “eccentric” — or worse.
However, Dryden suggests, Blagdon “appeared to care nothing about it and just carried on with his life, doing what he wanted to do.” Dryden adds, “That was the lesson.” It was one he personally absorbed, his remark suggests, not only about chasing a dream, but maybe also about the unsinkable healing power of art.
Emery Blagdon & His Healing Machine (2014) premiered on PBS.