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

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

The boy who discovered the drawings held on to the collection for decades. Then, in 2006, he decided to sell it. Harris Diamant, an artist and art dealer, saw the drawings online and bought them. "They're interesting and they're genuinely good," Diamant tells NPR's Scott Simon. "That was recognizable almost immediately. ... The craftsmanship is extraordinary."

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 Simon that the artist, James Edward Deeds Jr., 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.

Clay Deeds (left) visits his brother, James Edward Deeds Jr., at State Hospital No. 3. Clay is the brother Deeds threatened with an ax before his father sent him away.
/ Courtesy of Julie Phillips Deeds & Toodles Williams Deeds
Courtesy of Julie Phillips Deeds & Toodles Williams Deeds
Clay Deeds (left) visits his brother, James Edward Deeds Jr., at State Hospital No. 3. Clay is the brother Deeds threatened with an ax before his father sent him away.

According to Goodman, Deeds was abused as a child. "His father beat him often because Edward [as his family called him] didn't want to work on the farm." Goodman writes that Deeds was possibly autistic and his father made him live alone in a cabin away from the main family house. "One day, he came with an ax and went after his brother," Goodman says. "It's not entirely clear if this was for real or some kind of joke, but that was the straw that broke the camel's back, and his father put him in a mental institution after that."

Interview Highlights

On how they discovered Deeds' identity

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, and they published a pretty elaborate article about these drawings. ... And initially there was little response. I waited for about another year, and encouraged them to do another article, which they did. And that time we connected with the family of Edward Deeds.

On what the drawings are like

Goodman: There are people, and most of them are looking straight at you, very wide-eyed with small pupils. And they are from an era not of Deeds' era, but probably around 1910. This is all from his imagination.

There are drawings of objects: a saw, a violin, a fretless banjo. They're very, very lovely.

And then there are drawings of steamboats, buildings and some small groups of people, like a baseball team. Something you might see in the Midwest from, I don't know, Theodore Dreiser or Meredith Willson, The Music Man, that era. But all of them are very benign. They're very sweet. They're lovely drawings, and not one of them has any violence. 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.

On drawing No. 197, which contains the made-up word "ECTLECTRC" and which inspired the book's title

Diamant: When I first saw this drawing, No. 197, it was pretty clear to me that he was trying to say "electric" and he was perhaps dyslexic in his spelling of the word "electric." And it's followed by a drawing of a pencil, and I thought he was trying to say in his dyslexic way "electric pencil."

But I subsequently discovered that ECT is an abbreviation for electroconvulsive therapy and that Edward Deeds was subjected to this.

On what they think the album meant to Deeds

Diamant: I've always surmised that they were a comfort, a talisman, something that he walked around with and held, evidenced by the condition of the covers that doesn't happen from normal wear and tear.

On how Deeds' drawings represent a triumph of art

Goodman: There are so many moments when these drawings had a chance to never be seen. You know, when they were up in someone's attic and the movers threw it away into a trash can; and then the boy found them, and then he kept them for 30-odd years and just at that point decided to show them again.

And here this guy who is long gone, he died in '87, will never know that his drawings are in a New York art gallery and that they are reproduced in a lovely book. But these drawings just had to make their way into the world somehow. So I see it as the story of the triumph of art. 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.

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Corrected: March 29, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post misspelled Meredith Willson's last name as Wilson.
NPR Staff