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.
Harris Diamant purchased the Deeds collection in 2007 and, with his wife, Neville Bean, published a book of the drawings.
Sara Kerens
Harris Diamant purchased the Deeds collection in 2007 and, with his wife, Neville Bean, published a book of the drawings.
The farmhouse in Ozark where the Deeds family lived. In order to maintain a fragile peace with his father, who regularly beat him, Deeds lived alone in an older house on the edge of the property.
Aimee Levitt
The farmhouse in Ozark where the Deeds family lived. In order to maintain a fragile peace with his father, who regularly beat him, Deeds lived alone in an older house on the edge of the property.
The main building of State Hospital No. 3 in Nevada was torn down in 1999. But the outbuildings remain -- some have been converted into college classrooms and senior housing -- and it's still possible to see how the facility used to be a working farm.
Aimee Levitt
The main building of State Hospital No. 3 in Nevada was torn down in 1999. But the outbuildings remain -- some have been converted into college classrooms and senior housing -- and it's still possible to see how the facility used to be a working farm.

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.)

Phillips says her uncle was prone to pranks, such as spitting into the milk when it was his turn to set the table and hiding his least-favorite sister Dorothy's best dress when she was about to go to a party.

"I don't think he acted more 'off' than some kids," says Phillips. But young Edward's behavior did not sit well with the head of the household. "His father regularly beat the crap out of him," Phillips says. The boy's siblings nicknamed him "Slick," for his ability to slip away when Ed Deeds was angry.

When the family moved into a larger house up on the hill, Deeds' mother, Clara, let him live by himself in the old house at the edge of the property, and a fragile peace was maintained. But one day in 1933, when Deeds was about 25, his little brother Clay, ten years his junior, came over to the old house and began pestering Deeds. No one knows now what was said, but Deeds was alleged to have chased after his brother with a hatchet.

"Dad would shake his head and say, 'Boy, he was really mad at me that day,'" recalls Tudie Williams. "My grandmother was afraid Edward would kill Clay. She knew something had to be done. She was afraid enough for my father and the girls."

Williams and Phillips are both quick to note that Deeds had not usually harbored malevolent feelings toward his younger brother; once he'd even saved Clay from drowning in the river.

In November 1933, Ed Deeds committed his son to the Missouri School for the Feeble Minded in Marshall, 90 miles east of Kansas City. The senior Deeds described his son to admission officers as "obstinate" and "destructive," with a poor memory and short attention span. He wandered away from home and laughed and cried at odd times, apparently without provocation. Ed Deeds also appears to have told the school that his son was colorblind.

Distraught over the prospect of being sent away, Deeds attempted suicide by drinking antifreeze from the family's Model A, which probably didn't help his cause. A year and a half later, records indicate, the superintendent at Marshall recommended that Deeds be transferred to State Hospital No. 3 on grounds that he was insane: "psychotic, disturbed, boisterous and delusional."

"On the ward, he is hilarious, sings and runs around on the hall," doctors reported upon his arrival. "Worked for the state of Arkansas for a man he did not know. States he only committed one crime and that was murder, and did not think that amounted to very much. Said they told him at home he was crazy, but he does not think so, but his mind is not quite right since he got hit on the head with a stick. He is in no way depressed, is much pleased at being here, says he is worth twenty or thirty million dollars. He states that he is most popular with the girls, that they are all running after him. When asked how [illegible] he states that he was just born that way."

The official diagnoses were "dementia praecox — paranoid type" (i.e., schizophrenia) and moderate mental retardation. (His nieces disagree: Williams, who has been a registered nurse for 42 years, believes he was autistic. Phillips, whose son has ADHD, thinks he was hyperactive.)

The Nevada hospital was built on a model established in the mid-19th century by Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who aimed to promote "humane" care for the mentally ill. The main hospital was enormous — at one time it was the largest public building in Missouri — topped by a grand mansard roof and entered through an elegant lobby that sported an eight-foot-tall walnut clock. The grounds, which encompassed more than 500 acres, were a working farm. Instead of spending their days on the ward, restrained by straitjackets, patients were expected to cure themselves through labor: building roads, milking cows, butchering meat, baking bread and tending to the asylum's 4,000 chickens. The eagle sculpture that sat atop the hospital gates was said to have been created by a patient.

"Insanity is dependent upon physical conditions," wrote superintendent Dr. G. Wilse Robinson, who instituted the work program in 1908. By the time Deeds arrived, more than three-quarters of the patients worked on the farm or at housekeeping chores, and the hospital was almost entirely self-sufficient.

At its peak, in 1950, Nevada was home to more than 2,000 patients. But even the largest building in Missouri was not big enough to hold them all. And despite the farm work, the trips to the state fair, the movie nights and the dances (open to the public, with the stipulation that visitors had to dance with any patient who asked them), no one was getting well enough to leave.

In 1941 electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT, was introduced at State Hospital No. 1 in Fulton. It's likely the new form of treatment came to Nevada at about the same time; by 1952, according to a report by chief of psychological services Dr. Gerald (Bud) Prideaux, it was "the most widely used form of treatment for mentally ill patients."

All patients, regardless of diagnosis, received ECT twice a week. One at a time, they were strapped to a table with electrodes attached to their heads, given a piece of rubber to bite down on and "jolted." The procedure typically left burns and bruises. There was no anesthesia. The idea was to temporarily erase patients' memories so they could go through what Prideaux called "emotional re-education" and eliminate "thoughts and actions which are abnormal and detrimental."

Given current medical standards, the practice seems medieval, but at the time, ECT was on the cutting edge of psychological treatment methods, and for some patients it worked. "After the treatment," Prideaux wrote, "most cases seem noticeably clearer in their thinking and less troubled by delusions and depression."

Clay and Martaun Deeds, accompanied by Clara and a few of their children, made the 90-minute drive to Nevada to visit Deeds at least once a month. (Within the family, "I'm going to Nevada" came to mean "I'm going crazy.") They'd bring a picnic lunch and spend the afternoon on the grounds. They tried to time the visits so they wouldn't coincide with the ECT, but they didn't always manage it.

"Right after he had his treatments, he'd be in a zombie state," remembers Tudie Williams, who was a little girl at the time. "My dad led him around and set him down. My mom would get him something to eat. He couldn't focus. He couldn't draw. All he could do was say a few words. He had burns and sores on his forehead. I'd ask my mom, 'Did he fall?'"

A photo of Deeds taken in 1958, when he was 50, shows a man with wide, deep-set eyes, a soft crumpled nose and narrow lips, not unlike a figure from one of his own drawings. Deep lines had been etched into his forehead and between his brows. Whatever had inspired him to run exuberantly around the wards when he arrived in Nevada in 1936 had been jolted out of him. Williams remembers a very quiet and withdrawn man who hated to be touched. He liked to eat (he would amaze and disgust his nieces and nephews by cramming entire bananas into his mouth), and he smoked incessantly. Sometimes he'd laugh at a story Clay told him or mutter under his breath.

"He looked so sad and forlorn when we would get ready to leave," Williams recalls. "It was so sad — as a child that was the only word I could think of to use."


In 1953 Harry Chew, a painter and art professor at Cottey College in Nevada, began working with hospital patients two evenings a week, practicing an incipient form of art therapy. One of his students produced an oil painting of St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness, that won a blue ribbon at the state fair and remains on display at Nevada's Bushwhacker Museum. But Chew's widow, Dodi, doesn't recall her husband ever mentioning Edward Deeds. "I don't think he took lessons," she says. "He just did his own thing."

Deeds' mother bought him colored pencils at Kresge's five-and-dime, and someone at the hospital kept him supplied with tablets of outdated ledger paper. During family visits, while the adults talked and the children ran around and played on the grounds, he would sit with his pencils and paper and work with fierce concentration, ignoring all the noise and chatter around him. Little Tudie Williams liked to draw, too, and sometimes she would sit with him while he worked.

"One day he said, 'Draw a rainbow,'" she recalls. "I got my crayons and drew. What I drew was very visceral, with brilliant color, very firm. He said, 'That's not a rainbow. Rainbows are fluffy. It's like this—' and then he drew a rainbow. It's the one in the book. Since then I've realized rainbows are fluffy: That's truly what a person sees."

Williams watched him sketch landscapes. Clara Deeds would bring him copies of National Geographic, and Deeds would copy pictures he liked. The hospital housed a decent-size library of books and periodicals, and by the late 1950s there were television sets in the common areas. So images from the outside world found their way into Deeds' drawings. Some of the portraits, though, were likely inspired closer to home. Julie Phillips is fairly sure that Miss Martin and Anney are her mother Martaun and her sister Lyanne.

While the drawings are naturalistic in style, they'd never be mistaken for realism. For one thing, as Phillips notes, "My sister Annie had long hair, but I don't think she had yellow eyes." Moreover, all the characters in the portraits wear fashions that date back to Deeds' childhood or earlier. The animals, particularly the lions and tigers, evoke a gentleness that would not have shown up in National Geographic.

"They're very stylized, but they're not abstractions," says artist and designer Neville Bean, Harris Diamant's wife. "They have personalities. You feel their presence." The machines — ships, cars, locomotives — look like playthings; several of the boats even have little loops drawn on one end, as though the artist envisioned them as a child's pull-toys.

Diamant noticed something else when he paged through the book: The quality of the works was consistent. There was no "early Deeds" or "late-period Deeds." True, some drawings were better than others — "He definitely had an A-side and a B-side," Diamant quips — but there was no stylistic evolution. Deeds had bound these particular drawings into this particular sequence for a reason.

"His aesthetic is anachronistic," observes Jessica Baran, who writes about visual arts for Riverfront Times. "It's not random. He's being selective in what he portrays and the style. The portraits have a properness. They're all well-dressed and well-groomed, stately: It's a hopeful, dignified portrait of people who aren't famous." Baran notes that many of Deeds' drawings, like pictures created by children, seem to tell a story; a mature artist's work, by contrast, tends to capture a single moment in time.

Nate Larson coordinates the St. Louis Outsider Art Fair and serves as director of the Turner Center for the Arts, which offers art classes to disabled children and adults. "Outsider artists' world visions become more and more encompassing as they become more isolated," Larson says. "You can see [Deeds] become more conscious of his vision — and he stuck to it."

Williams remembers that even when Deeds appeared to be drawing what he saw, he was guided by what Larson calls his "vision." "He was very quick and accurate," she says, "like it was ingrained in his brain exactly how it was to turn out."

Diamant and Bean believe Deeds created this private world in order to cope with the realities of life inside the mental hospital. "It's an unsupported notion," says Diamant, "but I have a theory that the album functioned as a way to comfort him. He went back in time to around 1915, when he was eight years old, a time of comfort and normalcy. It was like a talisman. He was handled pretty roughly, particularly the ECT."

While searching for the identity of the artist, Diamant and Bean compiled a list of names of people, places and other references in the collection. It's likely, they believe, that some of the portraits were of fellow patients and members of the hospital staff. Last year Bean and Diamant visited the Springfield area and were delighted to see landscapes and bridges straight out of the drawings. Because the hospital didn't allow patient furloughs, Deeds never left Nevada between 1936 and 1973. He'd drawn everything from memory.

"One thing that was fascinating was that there's no violence," Bean observes. "Often outsider art has manifestations of the nightmarish torments of the person. It was fascinating to find the 'ECT' reference, but it was very subtle. Also Why Doctor —" a portrait of a supercilious-looking man wearing a top hat — "and the plaintive expressions on the people's faces. It was a haven, a place of escape from what he was going through."

Though they appear in only two of the drawings and aren't at all graphic, the ECT references stand out. Ectlectrc Pencil is one of the most meticulously detailed and colored portraits in the collection, from the feather in the woman's hat to the flowers in her fist. Deeds emblazoned "ECTLECTRC" in outsize letters across the top like a title, not below like a caption, as in most of his other drawings. Throughout the collection Deeds' spelling is erratic — "Rucian" for Russian, "Dixey" for Dixie — but the "ECT"s are clearly no accident. He was making a statement. What that statement was remains a mystery.


In the late 1950s, State Hospital No. 3 moved from electroshock toward sedation. A centennial report prepared in 1987 notes that Dr. Paul Barone, the institution's superintendent during the 1960s, "reports that with the help of tranquilizers many noisy, screaming, combative clients were changed almost overnight to quiet, orderly people."

Medical records show that Edward Deeds underwent his first drug treatments in 1968: chlorpromazine (Thorazine) for schizophrenia and benztropine mesylate (Cogentin), an antiparkinsonian medication, to control body tremors. The following year his doctor added imipramine (Tofranil) for depression. By 1972 Deeds' official diagnosis had been altered to "mentally retarded." A social worker notes in an official report from that year that "[h]e is undemanding and doesn't want people giving him too much attention. Usually sits quietly in a chair."

Having pronounced Deeds docile and no longer a danger to those around him, Barone recommended that he be discharged. His mother was too debilitated from arthritis to care for him, and his sisters were too busy with their farms. In an interview with the hospital social worker, Martaun Deeds explained that Clay was chronically ill (he had diabetes) and that between two working parents, three adolescents in the house and another daughter who'd returned home with her own two kids after a divorce, the household was too chaotic to take in her brother-in-law. She also felt it would be unsafe to leave Edward alone with the children.

Instead Deeds was transferred in January 1973 to the Christian County Rest Home, a nursing home in Ozark now called Ozark Riverview Manor. He lived there until 1987, when he died of a heart attack at age 79, having outlived four of his siblings (and both parents). His remains were interred in the family plot in Ozark Cemetery. State Hospital No. 3, later renamed the Nevada Habilitation Center, was torn down in 1999. At the time, Dodi Chew recalls, all the artworks that had been created by the patients and hung on the hospital's walls were destroyed.

By all accounts, Deeds' final years were quiet ones. The nurses remember him as a docile patient. He grew tomatoes and peppers in coffee cans. He had bad arthritis in his hands. Williams suspects it hurt him too much to draw.

"At a point when he was in the nursing home in Ozark, I went to visit him," she says. "He was a melancholy old gentleman. He wouldn't have a book or be drawing. I asked him about it. He said, 'I just don't do that anymore.' I said I remembered us having good times drawing together. He'd grin and nod and say, 'I remember.'"


John Foster is a graphic designer by trade and a collector by nature. He and his wife, Teenuh, have amassed one of the nation's finest collections of found snapshots. They're also interested in outsider art.

One day in December 2006, Foster left his office and went home for lunch. As is his habit, he began poking around on eBay.

"There were three drawings," he recalls now. "Their eyes were extraordinarily large. They were quite penetrating and revealing. There was the fact that they were on stationery or letterhead from a lunatic asylum, the period clothes. It all made me immediately think there might be more."

Unusually for eBay, the seller, a used-book dealer in Lawrence, Kansas, had listed his name and his location. (Since then, he has requested that Foster and Diamant, who also responded to the listing, not divulge his name.) Foster immediately sent an e-mail asking the dealer to get in touch. He got a return phone call almost instantly. His message had not been the first the dealer had received that day.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, there's chum in the water, and the sharks are swimming!' I had one chance. And I had proximity, unless somebody was already on a plane to get to them first." Within the hour Foster had called in sick to work and was on the road to Lawrence.

That evening Foster met the dealer at his home to look through the drawings and learned the story of this strange collection. A few weeks earlier, a man in Texas, guided by the hospital imprimatur on the ledger paper, had e-mailed Lyndon Irwin, a historian who maintains a Web page on the history of the old asylum in Nevada.

"He said he had a book of old drawings he had salvaged from the trash as a young teen," Irwin remembers. "He'd held on to those. Now he was interested in selling them and asked what I would do. I suggested eBay."

The dealer in Lawrence had snapped up the book. He'd unbound the volume but wanted to sell the entire collection as a single lot. The price he asked was, for Foster, breathtaking — more than he had ever paid for one thing in his entire life. He declines to disclose the sum but notes it was "more than $10,000," payable in cash.

Foster made an offer. It was accepted. He drove back to St. Louis that night and got the money together. Three days later he and the seller met in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel halfway between St. Louis and Lawrence and completed the deal.

"I said to myself, 'It's now or never, John. If you can't trust your eye after 30 years of looking at art — you need to be able to trust your eye. This is the time.'"

Within weeks, though, Foster was beset by buyer's remorse. He wasn't a dealer or a gallery owner; he was a collector. He liked owning the drawings, tracing the lines drawn by the unknown artist — but what on earth could he do with them? "I realized I had tied up a ton of money in paper things sitting on my table and on my living-room floor," he says.

The Kansas dealer had given him a list of other buyers who'd called about the book. The name at the top of the list was Harris Diamant. Foster called and asked if Diamant was still interested. "You bet I am!" the New Yorker replied. "How much do you want?" Foster quoted a sum that was twice what he'd paid. Diamant, who has been dealing in American folk art for 45 years, didn't blink. The two men arranged to rendezvous in Boston. Foster would bring the portfolio, Diamant would bring a check. If the drawings lived up to their billing, he promised, they had a deal. When they met at a Cambridge hotel, Diamant looked through barely half of the collection before he reached into his pocket and pulled out the check.

"It was instant," Diamant recounts. "Most of the time you look and wonder if it's as wonderful as it's supposed to be. You try to slow down. But here it was not the case. I like owning stuff but not nearly as much as I like discovering art and making judgments. This was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It should have been thrown away, but for some reason it still existed. It was extraordinary. I was giddy."


Diamant and Bean photographed the collection, drawing by drawing. They hired a conservator to soak each page in a neutralizing bath to stop the acid in the paper from eating it away. Then they slipped the drawings into archival sleeves, stored them in a safe-deposit box and commenced searching for the identity of the artist.

A private detective came up empty. After one phone conversation with the Texas seller, the man disappeared, as Diamant puts it, "into the mists." They consulted with Lyndon Irwin in Nevada. "At first I thought I could get into the state hospital records and find out who was doing drawings or was interested in art," Irwin says. "But even if I got into the records, I thought: Why would the doctor write, 'Likes to draw'?" Finally Diamant contacted the Springfield News-Leader, which published several large reproductions of the drawings and three articles that outlined what little anyone knew about their origin, along with Harris Diamant's e-mail address.

At the same time, Diamant and Bean were preparing to introduce "The Electric Pencil" to the New York art market.

"One thing about the art world," Bean explains, "is that critical acclaim or buzz is a strong motivator. People are interested in things other people are buying." Diamant hoped the collection would attract the attention of a major gallery, a name with more recognition and clout than his own.

They created a handsome coffee-table book of the drawings, which they published privately. Diamant hired Lyle Rexer, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and an authority on outsider art, to write the introduction. In February 2011 they set up a booth at the New York Outsider Art Fair.

The booth had a table where interested parties could page through copies of the book. Some visitors wound up poring over it for hours. "People were looking at the drawings and making diagnoses," Bean recalls. "They draw you in. People have such an affinity for them."

Diamant sold several drawings and scored a prominent mention in New York Times art critic Martha Schwendener's account of the fair, which noted, "Some of the most widely admired work here is by the Electric Pencil."

Within weeks the collection had found representation at Hirschl & Adler, a respected uptown gallery that holds a special place in the outsider-art world for being among the first, in the 1970s, to discover and promote the work of Bill Traylor, a former slave whose drawings, created in the early 1940s while he was living on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, are now considered outsider masterpieces that sell for up to six figures.

"I'm very excited," says Tom Parker, who handles the Deeds drawings for Hirschl & Adler. "It's fair to compare him to the greater lights of outsider artists. Artists that are the purest example of art brut [the original French term for outsider art] — Henry Darger or Bill Traylor or Edward Deeds, for example — stand in a group. They were truly working at the margins, truly intuitive. They made complex, beautiful imagery with the tools they had at hand."


And on a winter day in Springfield, Julie Phillips happened to glance at the News-Leader and see her Uncle Edward's drawings. "I was tickled to death that people thought Edward was this amazing breakout artist," she says.

"To know that someone had found the book, and to see the pictures again — it was like a dream come true," marvels Tudie Williams.

Phillips and Williams consulted with their two sisters, who agreed that the drawings were definitely made by Edward Deeds. And then Phillips wrote to Harris Diamant.

Last summer, accompanied by filmmaker Robert Vandeweghe, Diamant and Bean traveled to Missouri to meet Phillips — Williams, who lives in Hawaii, joined in via Skype — and to see where Deeds had lived and worked. (They hope to produce a documentary, a project they're pitching to PBS.)

Next January Hirschl & Adler will show 30 of the drawings. In March a larger selection will travel to the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the world's premier museum of outsider art. The current asking price for each two-sided page is $16,000.

"One of the biggest mysteries now to be solved is the story of trying to determine the nature of his handicap or disease and his thought process," says Tom Parker, the Hirschl & Adler curator. "What is the subject matter about? Are there clues? Is there an iconography? It's such a wonderful little puzzle to work on." A graduate student intern from Sotheby's has spent several months working on a scholarly article about Edward Deeds' possible influences. (The process, says Parker, involves a lot of Googling.)

Given that Deeds drew so compulsively, Bean says, he likely created many more pictures than the 283 he bound in the book, but she admits there's little chance any others survived.

Phillips and Williams are pleased that the collection found its way to Diamant. "Harris has done such a wonderful job of bringing attention to them and Uncle Edward's plight," Williams says. "I'm thrilled all this has come about."

That said, the art world still remains a bit of a mystery to the Missourians.

"Harris invited me to a gallery show this past January," says Lyndon Irwin. "I thought if he sold one of the drawings for $200, I would have bought one. I would have looked like a country clod, a hillbilly from Missouri!" He laughs. "That is why I did not need to own those pictures."

For Bean and Diamant, it's not about the money.

"What happens with an artist?" Bean muses. "We all have our ways of communicating. Some of us use language; some of us use imagery. What is human is the drive to connect and create. In whatever way Edward was stymied in his free expression, by the damage done from treatment or the damage done from abuse, he poured something significant into those drawings. Harris described them as like coming across cave drawings. It's his own personal language he's expressing himself with. In that way it's very poignant."

Diamant says he remains particularly struck by the condition of the book's binding. Though Deeds' nieces would recall their mother keeping the volume in pristine condition, when the Texan who'd found it in the dump at age fourteen finally parted with it, the cover was extremely worn and faded. But it wasn't the type of wear that comes from rough handling.

It looked like it had been held close to a person," Diamant says. "There was power in that album."

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6 comments
albrechtschnabel
albrechtschnabel

Thank you for the wonderful article! To me, it shows how *hard* life was as a very sensitive young man with a brutal, non-understanding father about 80 years ago. Sad life, in some ways, and still, now he has found some very-late recognition, and his soul, likely, will be happy about the late recognition, maybe. - Albrecht Schnabel Munich.

asfleming1
asfleming1

Great article! Sounds like Deeds' work would fit right in at the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

AliceWonderRed
AliceWonderRed

@aimeelevitt Loved your article #longread @anniezaleski

aimeelevitt
aimeelevitt

@AliceWonderRed @anniezaleski Thank you so much!

 
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