In one of the drawings discovered in a well-worn album, fished out of the trash in 1970 by a teenager in Springfield, Missouri, a wide-eyed woman points to a bouquet of flowers below the words “ECTLECTRC PENCIL.” It’s one of 283 hand-numbered sketches in crayon and pencil on ledger paper from State Hospital No. 3 in Nevada, Missouri, stitched together in the portfolio. When the boy, then an adult, finally sold the album in 2006, the unknown artist acquired the nickname “the Electric Pencil,” and the typos assumed to be the result of dyslexia.
Eventually, collector Harris Diamant bought the album, and intrigued by their mystery, hired a detective. In 2011 they linked the illustrations to James Edward Deeds Jr., who from the age of 28 spent 37 years at State Hospital No. 3 until his transfer to a nursing home, where he died in 1987. Deeds was in institutions from the age of 25, after he attempted suicide by drinking antifreeze, and then experienced the gauntlet of 20th-century treatment at State Hospital No. 3. As a Kirkbride asylum — an architectural approach to treatment previously covered on Hyperallergic — the hospital was designed as a progressive form of care in the late 19th century, with outdoor space and activities, and airy Victorian architecture. The Kirkbrides were a radical shift from the prison-like institutions before them. However, by midcentury, State Hospital No. 3, like many American Kirkbrides, was overcrowded, and by the 1950s much more invasive treatments were in vogue, including electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.
“Harris Diamant speculates that the misspelling of electric is not actually a misspelling at all, but rather a kind of cryptogram, with the letters ECT, twice rendered in the word, standing for ‘electroconvulsive therapy,’” author Richard Goodman writes in the introduction to The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3 out next month from Princeton Architectural Press. He adds that those letters haunt drawings elsewhere in the album, including number 94 on the façade of a building covered with windows, and in number 95 beneath a sketch of a man in a hat.
Whether the misspelling had this medical significance is as unknowable as Deeds himself, as are the reasons he decided to illustrate a world he could never see. The drawings seem set in the early 20th century, with railroads crossing flat landscapes, wood frame homes bordered with spindly trees, and formal portraits of people all gaping at the viewer with large eyes. These images were first published in 2011, in the hardback The Drawings of the Electric Pencil, when his identity was still unknown. With the added knowledge of Deeds’ time in the institution, and his treatment with ECT, some of the enigma unravels. We can view these drawings as an escape, the “imagined nostalgia” as Goodman puts it a way of disappearing from his surroundings. Diamant writes in his forward:
Looking at the well-worn covers, I envision Edward clutching the album like a talisman. I imagine the drawings were a source of comfort for him … a formal, gentle world he created as a sanctuary, a world in contrast to the harsh reality of his long life of abuse, hospitalization, and the frightening treatments he suffered at State Hospital Number 3.
Like other marooned works by self-taught artists, whether Martín Ramírez who also spent time in mental institutions, or the secluded Henry Darger, it’s easy for the torment of his life to eclipse the art, which is incredibly serene work. Light pencil strokes shade calm drawings that have subdued colors except when Deeds used green, which is dark and vibrant on pointed trees. Steam ships cruise beneath ledger paper titled with State Hospital No. 3, Lunatic Asylum No. 3, and State Hospital for the Insane No. 3, a subtle marker of time. Fictional Civil War soldiers stand proud, genteelly-dressed ladies pose with trees, an empty table is positioned by vine-laced trellises, and in some of the more arcane pieces, a Rousseau-like lion prowls below a bird carrying a banner reading “Cat Rag,” and in another just a saw blade is labeled with the block letters “BIG. G.”
Deeds often used structure of the ledger paper to give the drawings a rigid form, or worked them into the sketch, like an elevated train track suspended from the top line. Even when they become fantastic, like a hot air balloon taking off, a deer peeking over the roof of a building, a boy with curling antlers, or a circus scene, there’s a quiet kindness.
State Hospital No. 3 shut down in 1991, its Kirkbride building demolished in 1999. Despite all odds, Deeds’ drawings survive beyond the hulking building where he spent nearly his whole life, a glimpse now of one person’s vibrant internal world fostered even amid that isolation.
The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3 is out March 29 from Princeton Architectural Press.