Interview: 'The Electric Pencil' In 1970, a teenager found a handmade album in a pile of trash. Inside were 283 extraordinary drawings made on mental hospital stationery. The Electric Pencil tells the artist's story.
NPR logo

With Just Pencil And Paper, A Patient Found Escape Inside State Hospital No. 3

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471626195/471958117" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
With Just Pencil And Paper, A Patient Found Escape Inside State Hospital No. 3

With Just Pencil And Paper, A Patient Found Escape Inside State Hospital No. 3

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471626195/471958117" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In 1970, a teenager found a handmade album in a pile of trash in Springfield, Mo. Inside were 283 drawings - trains and cars, animals and portraits with haunting, circular eyes that stared dead ahead. There was no name, no signature. The only clue to the artist's identity was the stationery on which each picture was drawn - State Hospital No. 3.

The boy who discovered the drawings held on to the collection for decades until he was grown. And in 2006, he decided to sell it on eBay. Harris Diamant, an artist and art dealer, saw the drawings online. He joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HARRIS DIAMANT: It's a pleasure being here.

SIMON: And Richard Goodman joins us now from WWNO in New Orleans. He and Harris Diamant have co-authored a new edition of the drawings that are titled "The Electric Pencil."

And thank you both for being with us.

RICHARD GOODMAN: Very nice to be here.

SIMON: Harris, you saw these drawing on eBay? What spoke to you?

DIAMANT: Well, I've been dealing in American folk art for half a century. And the drawings were quite extraordinary in a way that's easy to determine by someone who's been doing this for half a century.

SIMON: How'd you find out who did them?

DIAMANT: That came four years after I had purchased the drawings. I encouraged the local newspaper in Springfield, Mo., to publish an article about the, at that time, anonymous drawings. Initially, there was little response. I waited for about another year and encouraged them to do another article, which they did. That time, we connected with the family of Edward Deeds.

SIMON: James Edward Deeds is the artist. And he was in State Hospital No. 3.

DIAMANT: Yes, he was - for most of his adult life.

SIMON: Richard Goodman, describe some of the drawings to us if you can.

GOODMAN: I suppose you could divide them up into three or four categories. There are people - very wide-eyed with small pupils. And they are from an era - not of Deeds's era, but probably around 1910. This is all from his imagination.

There are drawings of objects - a saw, a violin. And then there are drawings of steamboats, buildings. It's a world that's a very sweet world, a very calm world. And I think it probably represents what kind of man he was, although we'll never really know.

SIMON: We should explain he was in State Hospital No. 3 because he - well, he'd had some problems within the family. You refer to him as not being violent, but I think there are people in his family who were frightened by his behavior.

GOODMAN: He was abused by his father. His father beat him often because Edward didn't want to work on the farm. And yes, one day he came with an ax and went after his brother. It's not entirely clear if this was for real or some kind of joke, but his father put him in a mental institution after that.

SIMON: Yeah.

There are a number of drawings that arrested my attention. You gentlemen probably know the numbers pretty well - 197.

DIAMANT: Know it well.

SIMON: This is a woman in a flowered hat of the time - or actually a little earlier of the time - and a high-collared dress, holding aloft a bouquet. And it says - well, I'll just spell it out - E-C-T-L-E-C-T-R-C. And it was not until I read your book I quite understood, I don't know - is this a reference to electrotherapy?

DIAMANT: When I first saw this, it was pretty clear to me that he was trying to say electric, and he was perhaps dyslexic. And it's followed by a drawing of a pencil. And I thought he was trying to say electric pencil. But I subsequently discovered that ECT is an abbreviation for electroconvulsive therapy and that Edward Deeds was subjected to this. And rather than being dyslexic, he was coding his words in this album.

SIMON: Where does the work of James Edward Deeds fit into, what I guess we've been calling for the past generation or so, outsider art?

GOODMAN: For me, this is a story of triumph of art. There's so many moments when these drawings had a chance to never be seen. It's a - sort of a bittersweet story in that he won't be here to see all of this. But on the other hand, here they are for all of us to see them.

SIMON: Forgive this question. But who's making money off these pictures now?

DIAMANT: (Laughter) Well, the people who sell them.

SIMON: You're one of them, right?

DIAMANT: Indeed.

SIMON: And could you give me some idea, if somebody wants to own a James Edward Deeds, how much that goes for?

DIAMANT: Currently, the drawings are selling for $20,000 each.

SIMON: Well, you're immediately moved to wonder what a shame the artist couldn't take advantage of that.

DIAMANT: Indeed - I, myself, am an artist and understand the paradox of the story.

SIMON: Richard Goodman and Harris Diamant - they are co-authors of "The Electric Pencil: Drawings From Inside State Hospital No. 3." The artist was James Edward Deeds.

Gentlemen, thanks so much, both of you, for speaking with us.

DIAMANT: It's been a pleasure.

GOODMAN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.