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Thursday, March 31, 2016

New Book Features the Work of Missouri Mental Patient — Who Could Be the Art World's Next Big Thing

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge Veteran art dealer Harris Diamant discovered the work of James Deeds Jr. on eBay. - PHOTO BY SARA KERENS
  • Veteran art dealer Harris Diamant discovered the work of James Deeds Jr. on eBay.

A new book of drawings published this month by the Princeton Architectural Press, The Electric Pencil, has a seriously strange connection to Missouri: all of the sketches came from James Edward Deeds Jr., a patient inside a state mental hospital in Nevada, Missouri.

The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3 is a collection of 283 pencil and crayon drawings that was once shrouded in mystery (you can read our 2012 cover story about it here). Some illustrations depicted portraits of wide-eyed, broad nosed and thin-lipped men and women, all dressed formally in old-fashioned clothes. Other sketches show animals, cars, trains and buildings. Although each drawing was done on the same ledger paper, some bearing the name State Hospital No. 3, the identity of the artist was unknown.


Richard Goodman, who wrote the introduction for the book, says that fortune led to the discovery of the drawings.

“It speaks to the fact that in so many of these cases, luck plays a big role in whether or not the work will ever see the light of day,” says Goodman. Without it, Deeds' drawings would have been lost forever.

See also: The RFT's 2012 Cover Story on the Electric Pencil

Instead, in 1970, a fourteen-year-old boy was walking through the Springfield town dump when he picked up a hand-bound book full of drawings. He held on to it for 36 years.

Fast-forward to 2006, when the collection was put up for auction on EBay. It soon found itself in the hands of veteran art dealer Harris Diamant. The New York native and his wife, Neville Bean, hired a private investigator to uncover the identity of the artist—but nothing came of the search. After exhausting other leads, Diamant contacted the Springfield News-Leader and asked the paper to publish some of the drawings along with his email address.

It was when Julie Phillips picked up a copy of her hometown paper in 2011 that the identity of the artist was finally discovered. Almost instantly, Phillips recognized the drawings as her Uncle Edward’s handiwork. The portfolio had been given to Phillips’ father, Clay Deeds, but accidentally got shuffled off to the dump during a move. 

"Uncle Edward" had been a patient at State Hospital No. 3 for 37 years, from 1936 to 1973. His father admitted him after he chased after his brother, Clay, with hatchet. Deeds' official diagnosis was "dementia praecox—paranoid type," better known as schizophrenia, and moderate mental retardation. Phillips and her sister speculated that their uncle was autistic or hyperactive.


At the hospital, he was given electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT. The letters ECT show up on two of Deeds’s drawings—which was how Diamant came up with the title, The Electric Pencil

Deeds died of a heart attack in 1987, but his work is just beginning to circulate in the art world. Several of his drawings have sold for over $12,000 apiece and his collection has drawn comparisons to the revered outsider artists Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez. While it isn’t known exactly when he began drawing, or even when he stopped, his style remained consistent throughout his collection. 

Goodman says it’s too early to tell how Deeds’s work will contribute to the art world.

“We have to remember that the work is just now being exposed. The drawings are hardly known,” says Goodman. “I think it will be only now, with the publication of the book, that the world at large will have a chance to contemplate Deeds’s place in the art world.”

  • Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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