The Electric Pencil: A long-lost cache of sketches by a state mental hospital inmate finally yields up some of its secrets

The Electric Pencil: A long-lost cache of sketches by a state mental hospital inmate finally yields up some of its secrets
courtesy of Harris Diamant and Neville Bean

Two hundred eighty-three drawings: all done in crayon and colored pencil on ledger paper bearing the imprimatur of Missouri State Hospital No. 3, a mental asylum in Nevada, dated between 189_ and 191_.

There were portraits of men and women with thin, compressed lips and wide, staring eyes, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and elaborate hats. There were circus processions and full-body illustrations of strongmen and baseball players. There were lions and wildcats and deer and Civil War battle horses, trees with twisted branches, sharply sloping hillsides. There were toy boats and trains and motorcars and intricately detailed buildings. And there were the hospital gates with the sculpture of a magnificent eagle on top. Most of the drawings were flat and two-dimensional; a few seemed to flirt with perspective. They might have been images from a dream, but the figures were clear, the lines, precise.

The drawings had been assembled, sequenced and bound in a hand-sewn cover made of cardboard, cloth and leather. The artist had numbered each drawing in an upper corner. The numbers were ornate at first but grew scratchier as they climbed — as though the artist were getting tired, or running short on time.

Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.

One day in 1970, a fourteen-year-old boy was poking around near the corner of Seminole Street and Glenstone Avenue at the Springfield town dump. Amid the piles of trash, he spotted a book: a hand-bound volume of colored-pencil drawings sketched on century-old ledger stationery from Missouri State Hospital No. 3. He took it home.

Julie Phillips wasn't a habitual reader of the Springfield News-Leader, but one winter day in early 2011 she happened to glance at a copy of the hometown daily in the break room at her office. Staring up at her from the page was a familiar figure: a portrait of a woman wearing a high-necked dress and a wide hat with a big gray feather. She had big gray eyes and a tiny mouth, and she was pointing to a bouquet of flowers she held in her right fist. And, on closer inspection, does her copper-colored hat band bear a slight resemblance to the electrode bands patients wore during ECT treatments? At the top of the drawing, in large block print, was the word "ECTLECTRC"; lettered in a tiny banner off to the right, "PENCIL."

Written by reporter Juliana Goodwin, the accompanying article told the story of a hand-bound book of drawings that had been purchased by a New York-based sculptor and art dealer named Harris Diamant, who was now attempting to trace the identity of the artist, whom he'd nicknamed "The Electric Pencil."

For Diamant the stakes were significant. He'd recognized the drawings as an exceptional cache of outsider art, a category of work produced by untrained artists that over the past several decades has become highly collectible. Diamant had paid a five-figure sum for the book in 2007. If solving the mystery of the artist would satisfy his curiosity, it also stood to increase the value of the drawings.

Click here to see more of Edward Deeds' drawings in our online slideshow, "Select Drawings From Electric Pencil."

With the help of a private detective, Diamant had traced the book to a man from Texas who'd found it many years before in a dump in Springfield, but the trail ended there. Desperate for a lead, the New York dealer called Goodwin and told her about his quest. When the News-Leader published Goodwin's story along with color reproductions of several of the drawings, the paper included Diamant's e-mail address.

Phillips, now 52, was intimately familiar with the Ectlectrc Pencil drawing: It had been part of a handmade book that her Uncle Edward, a patient at State Hospital No. 3, had presented as a gift to her parents, Clay and Martaun Deeds, around the time she was born. The book was one of the family's most treasured possessions, stored in the attic, where the five Deeds children seldom were permitted to look at it. "It was something sacred to my mother," remembers Phillips' older sister, Tudie Williams, 57.

Then, when the family moved in the fall of 1969, the book vanished. Blame fell squarely on Clay Deeds, who, exhausted by the chaos of packing, had told the movers to empty out the attic, take what they wanted and dump the rest. Martaun was furious, but by the time she discovered that the book was missing, it was too late.

And now, more than 40 years later, here it was. Phillips was thrilled. "I said, 'I know that's Edward!'" she recalls. "'I just know!'"

No one who knew James Edward Deeds when he was growing up on the family farm in Ozark, some fifteen miles south of Springfield on the banks of the Finley River, recalled him as an artist. When the boy, always known by his middle name, wasn't working in the fields, he preferred to spend his time hunting and fishing.

His father, Ed Deeds, was by all accounts a hard man. He served for ten years in the Navy as a paymaster, most of them in the Panama Canal Zone, where Edward, the eldest of five children, was born in 1908. Twenty-five years later, when he was admitted to the Missouri State School for the Feeble Minded, someone (likely his father, who signed the paperwork) reported that Edward's "peculiarity" first emerged soon after the family moved back to Missouri, when he was eleven. (Earlier this summer Julie Phillips obtained the admission form, along with the rest of what remained of her uncle's medical records, from the Missouri Department of Mental Health and shared them with Riverfront Times.)

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