by John Dorfman
At the Outsider Art Fair in New York this past February, a new artist made a much-heralded debut appearance.
Of course, he wasn’t exactly new, considering that the drawings were obviously made before World War II, but his work had remained outside the Outsider scene until quite recently. And while several of the remarkable two-sided drawings sold at the fair for $12,000 apiece, the artist remained anonymous, known only as “The Electric Pencil,” a phrase inscribed, seemingly as a signature, on some of the sheets of paper.
Now, finally, due to the research efforts of Harris Diamant, a New York-based artist and sometime folk-art picker who is representing the anonymous owner of the drawings, and the critic Lyle Rexer, the identity of the Electric Pencil has been discovered, and the strange, sad story of his life made known—at least as far as it can ever be known. His real name was James Edward Deeds Jr., and he was born in 1908 in Springfield, Mo., and died in an old-age home in 1987.
In 1925 he was committed for life to State Lunatic Asylum #3 in Nevada, Mo., and was discharged from there sometime in the mid-1970s. According to Diamant, Deeds was born to a well-educated, privileged family; his father was a naval officer who served as paymaster of the U.S.S. Marblehead. Deeds Sr. was apparently a brutally authoritarian man; family strife weighed heavily on young James, who pulled a gun on his father and went after his brother with a hatchet.
These incidents led to his involuntary confinement.
Treatment in those days, even when not devoid of compassion, was crude, and Deeds was subjected to intense shock therapy, among other things. In fact, it turns out that the artist’s self-bestowed name was a coded reference to this painful treatment: He wrote it as “The Ectlectric Pencil,” a spelling that Diamant and others at first assumed was evidence of dyslexia or some other disorder. But the “ECT” is nothing but an acronym for “electro-convulsive therapy.”
Diamant says, “He experienced some really horrible stuff and was damaged by it. A photograph we found clearly shows a person who was damaged. He lost everything but the impulse and wherewithal to make this wonderful art.” After he was discharged, Diamant adds, Deeds stopped drawing—“Outside the hospital setting, the need evaporated.”
The art is charmingly archaic, not only for our time but for Deeds’, too. Done with delicate black and colored pencils on hospital stationery, it has some of the look of American Indian ledger drawings. The subjects include portraits, references to the Civil War, automobiles and rural townscapes.
“They lie somewhere between folk art and Outsider art,” says Diamant. “They really resonate with 19th-century American folk art. There’s clearly some pathology there, but there is perfection in the forms. Given the choice between an angle and a curve, he always takes the curve.”
The “Electric Pencil” drawings—280 total on 140 sheets—were found in a dumpster in Springfield in the 1970s by a 14-year-old boy, who kept them for over 30 years and then sold them to a book dealer in Lawrence, Kan. In 2006 the dealer put five of them up on Ebay, where Diamant noticed them. After only an hour, the dealer was inundated with calls and took the drawings off Ebay.
When Diamant contacted the Kansas dealer he found out that all 280 drawings had been sold privately to a collector in St. Louis. Last year, Diamant acquired them from that collector, on behalf of another collector with whom he entered into a partnership. He and Rexer produced a book on the Electric Pencil this winter, published by Electric Pencil Press, but the artist’s true identity came to light too late to make it into the book. A second edition is on the way.