At Peace in the Land of “The Electric Pencil”: A Book Review from the Pale Beyond

During the course of my three-part series “The Pale Beyond,” the focus of the text gradually shifted. It moved from the scarifying aspects of the giant closed asylums which dot the American landscape (and the related “urban explorer” subculture that goes with it), to ruminations on the lives of those unfortunate people who were fated to be patients there while they were still open. But a lot of that was merely speculation. Seldom has a class of people been so under-represented, if not downright anonymous. Many of them spent much of their adult lives in these looming Victorian complexes that were designed with the best of intentions but invariably became inhumane warehouses of lost souls.

The story of one of these patients, James Edward Deeds Jr., has come to light with the recent publication of the remarkable picture book “The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3.” The book displays the 283 enchanting and enigmatic drawings done by Deeds in pen, pencil and crayons while he was committed to an asylum in the town of Nevada, Missouri between 1936 and 1973. His subjects formed a fanciful and orderly alternate world of riverboats, trains, factories, gardens, animals and dozens of well-dressed men and women with large and almost hypnotized eyes. Deed’s drawings have a keen draftsman’s precision and a calming, nostalgic view of an era just before his own birth in 1908.

electric-pencil-boy

Behind all this is the story of Deeds’ troubled life and the improbable events that led to the discovery of his art. James Edward Deeds was the eldest child of a large farming family in southwest Missouri. He was likely autistic and, unable and/or unwilling to help much on the farm, was physically abused by a cruel father. After threatening a younger brother with an axe—an act which may have been a prank—he was sent to the nearby State School for the Feeble Minded. Later, he was classified insane and committed to State Hospital #3.

electric-pencil-house

“It was as if the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) had been set down on the outskirts of a small town in western Missouri,” Richard Goodman writes in the book’s engaging introduction. Built in 1887, it was the largest structure west of the Mississippi River at the time it was completed. By the time of Deeds’ confinement many of the ideals of this Thomas Kirkbride-designed complex—the Quaker physician-reformer envisioned spacious and therapeutic facilities built to take full advantage of sunlight and even the “prevailing summer breezes”—had gone by the wayside. Deed’s art therapy was self-directed and little known outside of his visiting siblings and his mother, who kept him in pens and crayons. In a rather poignant touch, most of his drawings were made on the pages of a discarded State Hospital #3 ledger book.

electric-pencil-train

After Deeds stopped drawing due to arthritis, probably in the mid-60s, he gave the unsigned binder to his mother, who in turn handed it over to one of his brothers. But when the brother re-located in 1970, it was mistakenly placed in the trash by movers. A passing teenage boy spotted it and took it home. Goodman speculates why. “Was it that he knew somehow that this was a person’s life effort, a world that had been created with deliberation, care and skill, and that leaving it there would be wrong?” The boy (eventually man) would hold onto the book for all of 36 years, finally offering it for sale while retaining his anonymity. The drawings in The Electric Pencil changed hands a couple of times before ending up in the possession of sculptor/art collector Harris Diamant, who wrote the book’s foreword.

electric-pencil-2girl

Certainly many people could relate to Deeds’ creating his peaceable kingdom as a psychic escape from the bleak reality of his life within State Hospital #3. Even in the lives of those of us much more fortunate, there is a constant mental and spiritual need to find our own “happy place” in a very uncertain world. But just beneath the placid surface of these illustrations lies the despairing world that James Edward Deeds lived in. For too many years his “treatment” consisted of alternate applications of sedatives and shock therapy. Diamant took to calling the unknown artist “The Electric Pencil” before Deeds was eventually identified when his niece saw one of the notices that the collector ran in Missouri newspapers. That nickname derives from drawing #197 where the seemingly dyslexic Deeds wrote the word “ectlectric” next to a pencil. But the letters ECT (used by staff for the phrase “electro-convulsive therapy”) would show up on other pages as well. Saddest of all may be the image of a man casting a nervous sidelong glance under which Deeds wrote “Why Doctor.”

danvers-cem1

Why, indeed. It turned my mind back to the untold thousands of others who dwelled in more-or-less total obscurity without the alleviating comfort of artistic aptitude, never mind the posthumous recognition of a New York art gallery show and a handsomely-presented book. (Deeds passed away in 1987, having spent his final fourteen years in a nursing home). Recently, on a third attempt, I found the auxiliary Danvers State patient cemetery that I had heard about at the time I started this series. Not having spotted it from the car, I took to my trusty hybrid this time and biked around the area along the Danvers-Middleton town line where it was purported to be—a curious mixed-use area of farmland, rehabilitation centers, community gardens and a Massachusetts Youth Services detention center.

danvers-cem3

After a while I spotted it up on a gentle slope from a low-lying field. It was a mile away from the old façade of the Danvers asylum (the centerpiece of the new condo development there), a pleasantly situated rectangular site off the road. As usual, numbered graves abound, but a recently-dedicated plaque now lists the names of those interred. Since the most recent passed away in 1920, most of these people would have lived in the imagined time frame of Deeds’ graceful drawings. Here they were, at peace in the imagination of the artist as well as within the borders of the rail fencing, even with a pall overhead that the October sunshine didn’t quite burn through.

danvers-cem2

2 comments

  1. Very interesting and so good that the book of drawings was saved. I live near an old Victorian “asylum” that only closed in 1999 – Beautiful setting but now fallen into disrepair. There is a walled graveyard there with yew trees for the remains of patients whose families didn’t want to claim them, such was the stigma in those early days. Many were old soldiers suffering from PTSD.

    1. I used to also live nearby to a place like that as well, which kind of inspired this series in the first place. Very sad, but at least there has been a movement here to identify and put up plaques for the people buried in these places.

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