James Edward Deeds, Jr., was born in Panama in 1908 to Clara and Edward Fount Deeds. The Deeds family was stationed at the Panama Canal Zone while the elder Deeds served military duty as paymaster aboard the USS Marblehead. In 1912, the Deeds returned to Clara’s family homestead in McCracken, Missouri, where they settled as farmers. Edward, the eldest, had three sisters, Helen, Dorothy and Josephine, and a brother, Clay. Family accounts paint Edward as a well-meaning but increasingly troubled youth, with difficulty adjusting socially and further complicated by a disciplinarian father incapable of nurturing a child with special needs. As Edward aged into his teens, father and son clashed at every turn. The young man was relegated to a second house on the farm’s property, the first salvo in his father’s quickening campaign to isolate him from the family. Eventually Edward’s frustration erupted in a threat of violence that prompted the father to seek hospitalization for his son. Fearing a looming separation from his family, Edward attempted suicide, an act of desperation that would institutionalize him for life.
Deeds’s drawings, using mostly crayon and pencil, are delicately executed. They are innocent, often fanciful, and notably devoid of suffering, violence, or the anger one might associate with an artist presumably under psychological or emotional stress. One glaring exception is the unmistakable recurrence of the initials “ECT,” a probable acronym and thinly veiled reference to the controversial shock treatment known as electroconvulsive therapy. Balance, order and repetition seem paramount. Lines are unerringly straight, shoulders level, bricks numbering in the thousands perfectly measured. Favorite motifs recur throughout: plumed feathers, eagles, stars, smokestacks, “coon-skin” caps, quills, coins, clocks, and watches. Themes explored in some depth include the circus, the Civil War, politics, garden design, architecture, famous horses, and athletes. Almost all are brought to life with various titles and annotations that are creatively spelled and often puzzling.1
On March 16, 2016, NPR’s Scott Simon of “Weekend Edition Saturday” interviewed Harris Diamant, an artist and art dealer who discovered Deed’s artworks online in 2006. Diamant has now published the drawings in a book called The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3. His co-author, Richard Goodman, tells us that the artist spent most of his adult life as a patient at State Hospital No. 3, and the story of how he got there goes back to his childhood. Listen to the interview in its entirety here, by clicking the play button below.
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