Dan Dryden was working as the pharmacist at the Westfield Pharmacy in North Platte, Nebraska, when he met Emery Blagdon (1907–1986) in the summer of 1975. The disheveled Blagdon, who by this time refused to cut his hair or shave, fearing it would cause his death, wanted Dryden to sell him “elements.” Asking what he wanted them for, Dryden recalled Blagdon telling him that:
[…] he was building machines — magnetic machines — machines that had electrical activity.
Dryden knew that the only materials capable of electrical activity were mineral salts and sold him various kinds: “salt powders, crystals and sodium chloride.”
This chance encounter is the reason why Blagdon’s “The Healing Machine” (c. 1950–86), which consists of more than 400 separate pieces — paintings on wood, boxes full of found materials, and intricate wire hangings — survived. It is why the machine, along with the shed that once housed it, is in the collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
More than a decade later, Dryden and his high school friend, the artist Don Christensen, learned that Blagdon had recently died and that his estate was up for auction. They pooled their resources and managed to buy the contents of two sheds where the “Healing Machine” was kept. According to his relatives and those who knew him, Blagdon worked on “The Healing Machine” from 1955 until ’86, growing more reclusive as time passed.
Dryden and Christensen were its stewards for nearly twenty years before it entered the collection of the Arts Center.
In the middle of one of the Center’s spacious galleries, and surrounded by Blagdon’s paintings, sculptures and other materials, sits part of the shed, where he operated his “Healing Machine.” He believed that his machine could channel curative currents of electricity that would relieve people of their various ailments. In order to help collect and contain electricity in the shed, he painted abstract signs — which might be considered conductors and receivers – on the bottom of the floorboards, which the curators turned over to reveal what had been hidden out of necessity for years.
Blagdon constructed wire armatures and attached a variety of things to them, including tin foil, jars filled with variously colored material and brightly colored beads. In some cases he wrapped wood armatures with copper wire and affixed cut tin foil to them with nails. He made other objects that resembled mobiles, with various linear elements hanging from a horizontal armature, attached to the ceiling by wire. Although it wasn’t Blagdon’s intention, a number of pieces in which he limited himself to wire and wire-like structures functioned like drawings in space — a repetitive pattern-cum-scribble. Blagdon probably thought of the wire contraptions as conductors, which help concentrate the electricity into a healing presence.
The paintings are done on pieces of wood. All of them are abstract — which is generally not the case with outsider artists — with a central circular or star-like form from which various lines and patterns radiate. Think crude homemade Orphism a la Robert Delaunay. It is clear from the choice of colors that Blagdon had some theory about them, though we might never know exactly what he had in mind.
One of the hallmarks of the Kohler Foundation and Arts Center is what Jori Finkel, writing in the New York Times (July 8, 2009), characterized as “respect for the organic, accumulative and, yes, obsessive nature of the art … ” Dedicated to collecting and preserving entire bodies of work, whenever possible, the Arts Center is unlike any other collecting institution in America.
While disassembling, cleaning and restoring the different components of “The Healing Machine,” the Kohler conservators were able to document the various materials Blagdon used, as well as discover all the parts of the work that remained hidden from view. It was a machine with a function – to heal — and not a work of art.
Blagdon was not interested in aesthetics or how the piece looked, but in how it worked. Remarkably resourceful, he rubbed pigment onto popsicle sticks, wrapped wire around spindles, made patterns out of aluminum parts and drew cuneiform-like symbols, much of which remained out of sight to those who came to be healed.
This is how Dryden described his first experience with “The Healing Room:”
He opened this door and reached around the corner, threw on a couple of switches. All the Christmas tree lights came on. Some stayed on. Some were blinking on and off, reflecting off hundreds and thousands of pieces of copper wire, tin foil, painted tin can lids. It hit me all at once. This panorama — even though it was a small room — it looked like a vast panorama … the room looked ten times larger than it was … [J]uxtapose that with the fact that outside there are miles and miles of nothing but Sandhills, a few corn fields, a few cattle, otherwise absolutely nothing – and here [was] this whole world, contained within the shed …
More can be found about Blagdon in the catalogue Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists by Leslie Umberger, with contributions by Ruth DeYoung Kohler, Lisa Stone, and Jane Bianco, which was published in 2007 by Princeton University Press in association with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
Emery Blagdon: The Healing Machine continues until January 12, 2014 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin).