Ectlectrc Pencil: Lost Collection of Pencil Drawings Reveals Trials of Patient at Missouri State Hospital No. 3
Harris Diamant knew he discovered an important piece of outsider art when he came across a hand-bound book of drawings for sale on Ebay in 2006. Listed by a bookseller in Lawrence, Kansas, the collection was comprised of 238 crayon and colored pencil illustrations on ledger paper by a then-anonymous author and was sold to a collector minutes after being posted. Diamant reached out to the buyer to share his contact information in case the person decided to sell the work. Soon enough, he purchased the entirety of the cardboard, cloth, and leather-bound book that held a hefty five-figure price tag.
The series is titled Ectlectrc Pencil—a misspelled version of Electric Pencil—and features lightly-pigmented drawings from a patient at Missouri State Hospital No. 3, a moniker that often tops the pages. On the cover, a thin-lipped woman with coiffed hair holds up a bouquet of flowers. Other pages include a brown lion with a bird swooping overhead carrying a banner saying “Cat Rag,” while another depicts a rocky gorge with a train running above it. The portraits throughout the work are detailed similarly: most people have large eyes and are dressed in clothes indicative of the early 20th century. Each page is numbered in the top corner.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to sell the entire collection, Diamant brought the drawings to the 2011 Outsider Art Fair in New York, where the project garnered attention from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Art on Paper. Firmly planted within the tradition of outsider art, the Electric Pencil project somewhat resembles the work of Henry Darger, the American writer and artist who worked as a Chicago hospital custodian while creating hundreds of drawings and watercolor paintings that were discovered after his death. His pieces now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As talk about the unknown artist’s identity grew—Diamant even hired a private investigator to look into the project—so did interest in the collection. According to a 2012 report in Riverfront Times, a 52-year-old woman soon contacted Diamant about the artifact. She was the niece of James Edwards Deeds Jr., the collection’s creator.
Born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1908, Deeds frequently was abused and mistreated by his father. When he was four years old, the family moved to McCracken, Missouri, where they ran a successful farm. By age 25, Deeds’s parents sent him to the Marshall School for the Feeble Minded, an outmoded component of a system that sequestered people with a range of educational and social capabilities. Three years later, he was committed to the state hospital in Nevada for the rest of his life.
Housing more than 2,000 patients at its greatest capacity in 1950, the state hospital was situated on 500 acres and was an active farm that patients worked throughout their stays. In a conversation with Colossal, Diamant mentioned that four pages in the book, including the cover and title of the project, refer to ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, a procedure that sends small electric currents through the brain in order to cause a seizure, which alters the brain chemistry and can aid in mental illness. The frequent mention of the therapy points to the effect it had on Deeds as he underwent standard treatment from doctors at the time.
Reports printed in Riverfront Times from the state hospital described Deeds as “psychotic, disturbed, boisterous and delusional.” Doctors diagnosed him officially with schizophrenia.
On the ward, he is hilarious, sings and runs around on the hall…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 notation) he states that he was just born that way.
While committed to the institution, Deeds crafted scenes of circuses replete with animals and performers, in addition to what seem to be depictions of the expansive hospital. Page 33 even features a yellow-eyed man sporting a top hat called “Why Doctor,” perhaps an indication of how Deeds’ understood those who oversaw his care.
Diamant also noted that the cover and many of the inside pages show signs of wear, signaling that Deeds carried his prized project with him often. As his most valued possession, Deeds gifted his illustrated works to his mother to protect them from getting ruined or thrown away, but of course, that plan didn’t work out as he intended. Lost for years, a 14-year-old boy found the collection in the trash in 1970 at the Springfield town dump, and it was then passed through various hands until Diamant purchased it.
He’s been digging deeper into the story since, trying to uncover and share information about Deeds’s life and the creativity the artist fostered while confined to a life inside Missouri State Hospital No. 3. For deeper insight into the Deeds’s life and his illustrated project, grab a copy of The Drawings of the Electric Pencil.
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“ME: An Exhibition of Contemporary Self-Portraiture” asks 22 contemporary artists to explore who they are and how they present themselves. Curated by Sugarlift and Juxtapoz contributing editor and Colossal contributor Sasha Bogojev, the exhibition presents each artists’ understanding of themselves and of the history of self-portraiture. Cesar Piette’s abstract blue face resembles dripping paint partially masked by glasses, while Prudence Flint portrays a woman napping on a pink bed next to a guitar. Many of the artists created their first self-portraits in years, if not ever, specifically for the show, which includes work from Aleah Chapin, Cesar Piette, and Christian Rex van Minnen, among others.
In a conversation with Colossal, Bogojov answered a few questions about contemporary culture and self-awareness, how they influence self-portraiture, and the ways current conceptions of identity show up in ME.
Colossal: How have perceptions of the self changed since the creation of such a selfie-obsessed culture?
Bogojev: Oh, that is a tough one and I’m certain there are papers if not books written on that subject. But I do feel that a selfie-obsessed culture created more self-awareness on different levels. For this show, in particular, I feel like lots of artists wanted to fight against the popular idea of “self” or what we know now as selfie, by presenting themselves imperfect, flawed, caricatured, even grotesque in some cases.
Colossal: Could you talk a little more about the intersections between psyche, mirror, and others that you see in contemporary self-portraiture?
Bogojev: Modern-day takes are rarely realistic renderings of one’s mirror image and are often including elements that suggest qualities beyond that. Whether playing with light, formatting, color scheme, or simply going away from realism completely, they often focus on the author’s character, emotions, and such. I like to believe that this show encompasses that really well with the variety of approaches and visual languages presented.
Colossal: So many conversations about identity center ideas of multiplicity, of people not having a singular self. How do you see that relating to the face and to self-portraits?
Bogojev: Exactly! I think this is what most artists nowadays are fully aware of and that is why they struggle to find the “right way” to create self-portraits or they create multiple versions of it. Again, I feel it’s the superficiality of selfie-culture that made them extra wary of how they present themselves without jeopardizing their integrity and practice. With their artwork being the most direct and honest way of communicating with the world, it is not easy for an artist to pick one image, or even concept, as a single representation of oneself. I think this is why the artists in ME built their self-portraits by layering different visuals (Van Minnen), assembling a variety of elements (Shiqing), creating an atmosphere they connect to (Flint, Toscani, Chapin), captured an intimate moment that describes them best (Erheriene-Essi, O’Brien).
ME is on view from January 16 to 30 at High Line Nine in New York. If you’re in the city on January 21, stop by for “The Self-Portrait: Antiquity to #Selfie,” a talk by art and culture critic and author Carlo McCormick, historian and Sotheby’s VP of Old Masters Painting Calvine Harvey, and contemporary painter Jenny Morgan.
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Illustrator James R. Eads (previously) incorporates elements of Impressionism and fantasy in his colorful landscapes. The Los Angeles-based artist builds imagined worlds with vibrant, short brush strokes, often featuring exotic birds, half-sunken boats, and swirling star-filled skies. Eads shares with Colossal that he is deeply connected to music, which consistently influences his work. His personal passion translates to client commissions, as he has created imagery for dozens of bands ranging from The Black Keys and Leon Bridges to Jerry Garcia and Iggy Pop.
“I’ve been really inspired by a lot of different things lately, including many worlds theory—the idea of multiple universes and timelines existing simultaneously,” Eads tells Colossal. “I’ve been working on a series of pastel paintings called Many, Many Paths that explores this idea through meandering paths in otherworldly gardens.” The artist shares that his most recent undertaking is a series called Cosma Visions, “which explores the idea of past lives and reincarnation reimagined on the traditional tarot. It takes the reader through the journey of the soul in the spirit plane after death.”
Eads also experiments with Virtual Reality artwork, an example of which you can see below, and runs a screen-printing studio in Los Angeles. He produces a range of limited edition prints and other buyable items that incorporate his colorful illustrations. The artist also recently successfully crowdfunded a Lenormand deck called Green Glyphs. Shop Eads’s online store and follow along with new work on Instagram and Facebook.
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At the Direktorenhaus Museum in Berlin this past week, a solo exhibition of detailed architectural drawings by Virginia-based artist Benjamin Sack (previously) opened to the public. Titled Labyrinths, the collection of new works features vast cityscapes comprised of impossible inner-geometries. The maze-like urban maps reference musical compositions and various symbols found in cosmology.
Often creating based on what he calls a “fear of blank spaces,” Sack tells Colossal that his starting point for each drawing is different. Finding inspiration in history, cartography, and his own travels, the artist starts with a general concept and builds his intricate worlds intuitively as he goes. Star-shaped buildings and pathways meet with rows of houses that spiral out from clusters of skyscrapers. The pieces in Labyrinths range from 11 inches by 14 inches (a standard photo print size) up to 90 inches wide and 69 inches tall. A work titled Library of Babel is drawn on the surface of a globe measuring 16 inches in diameter. “Generally, a large piece is begun with a few very broad and simple demarkations in pencil,” Sack explains. The rest of the lines and spaces are filled in with pen.
“Over many years my interest in architecture and cityscapes has evolved,” Sack tells Colossal. He adds that drawing such intricate pieces has “become a way and means of expressing the infinite, playing with perspective and exploring a range of histories, cultures, places.”
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Pastel artist Zaria Forman’s subject of choice is the glacier. The natural phenomenon that occurs around the globe is a critical element of cold-weather ecosystems, as well as a barometer of global climate health. The Brooklyn-based artist travels worldwide, often accompanying scientific expeditions, to experience and document glaciers firsthand, taking thousands of reference photographs to inform her enormous pastel drawings.
In translating her real-world travels on to paper, Forman shares that she draws from memory as well as from her reference photographs. “Occasionally I will re-shape the ice a little, or simplify a busy background to create a balanced composition, but 90% of the time I am depicting the exact scene that I witnessed, because I want to stay true to the landscape that existed at that point in time.”
Forman shares with Colossal that her passion for remote landscapes was sparked in childhood, when she traveled the world with her family—including her fine art photographer mother. As an adult she has channeled this fascination with our planet’s vast and varied landscapes into her art practice.
Climate change is arguably the largest crisis we face as a global society. I feel a responsibility as an artist to address this in my work, especially since I’ve had the rare opportunity to travel to remote places at the forefront of the crisis. Psychology tells us that humans take action and make decisions based on emotion above all else. Studies have shown that art impacts our emotions. I convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation of threatened places in my work. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.
Many of the works shown here feature Greenland’s glaciers. Last winter, Forman also re-visited Antactica and Patagonia’s southern ice fields, and she has just started working on a series around Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. “Impressively, Perito Moreno glacier is the third largest reserve of fresh water on the planet, surpassed only by the Antarctic and Greenland Ice sheets,” Forman explains to Colossal. “It also happens to be the only glacier in the southern ice fields that is not retreating. But it’s not advancing, either. I am excited to dive into its details and textures in these new compositions.”
Next summer, Forman’s solo show will be on view at Winston Wächter Fine Art in Seattle. The artist is also curating an exhibition for the National Geographic Endurance, a polar expedition ship, which will be installed in February, 2020. Follow along with Forman’s work and travels on Instagram.
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Artist Adam Riches uses pen and ink to create frenetic portraits of brooding anonymous figures. The monochrome illustrations emerge out of blank backgrounds, with broad, gestural lines skittering and looping across the paper. Often, pen drawings fall into two stylistic categories: contour drawings that capture the outlines and edges of their subject, or super-smooth ones that seem to defy the fine point of the pen with layered hatch marks. In forging his own style, Riches uses highly varied density in his mark-making to create volume and suggest shadows, while also utilizing each line as a distinctive shape. In a recent video interview with BBC, the artist explains, “the drawings are quite intuitive and are done spontaneously. They reveal themselves as I’m making them.”
Riches will be showing his work at PULSE Art Fair in Miami Beach in December, 2019, and his artwork is available for purchase through Nadia Arnold. See more of the artist’s scribbled portraits as well as his work in charcoal on Instagram and Facebook.
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A short documentary film by Bas Berkhout profiles third generation portrait painter Kathryn Engberg. In the 6 minute-long film, Berkhout turns the tables on Engberg—usually the observer and chronicler—taking a look inside the artist’s studio and digging into her story. “As a painter of people myself, I tried to give Bas total control to capture what felt compelling to him. As someone so self-admittedly interested in being in the audience, it was strange to see myself as the focus. But I trusted Bas to create a wonderful piece,” Engberg tells Colossal.
The artist is currently working on a series of paintings inspired by the artist Artemisia Gentileschi (who is perhaps best known for Judith Slaying Holofernes), and will be exhibiting in the group show “Face to Face” at Robert Simon Fine Art in New York City. The show opens on November 14, 2019. See more of Engberg’s paintings and sketches on Instagram and explore Berkhout’s film portfolio on Vimeo. (via Colossal Submissions)
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.