The Electric Pencil: Using Art to Diagnose the Artist
Susan Scheftel, PhD
Lecturer in Psychiatry, Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research, Columbia University, New York, NY
The Case: The Artist’s Images
In 1970 a 14-year-old boy found a handmade book on a trash heap in Springfield, Missouri. When that boy grew up, his find was posted on a historian’s Website which in turn led to the sale of the “book” to an art collector, who subsequently sold it to New York artist Harris Diamant. Diamant has compiled the images into a book and companion Website, The Drawings of The Electric Pencil and has exhibited them at the 2011 Outsider Art Fair. These drawings of a completely unknown artist, about whom nothing biographical was known until very recently, comprise one of the most substantial Outsider Art discoveries in the last decade.
So what was in the anonymous homemade book that a young boy pulled out of a garbage can? There were 280 drawings, all clearly drawn by one artist, sewn together and bound into a handmade volume. The drawings were numbered and fall into different representational categories, though the serial order of the pictures may have had some kind of unwritten narrative continuity in the artist’s own mind. They were all done with colored pencil and crayon, lightly drawn; yet they are done with a sure touch and a great deal of technical proficiency, sometimes coupled with a child like or naive style. All of the pictures are rendered on paper from a ledger book printed with the imprimatur “State Hospital No. 3, Nevada Missouri,” and the pictures are drawn on both sides of the paper. The subjects of the drawings fall into several broad categories that are interpolated with one another. Perhaps most emblematic of the artist’s style are portraits of women and some men in 19th century garb, staring out at the viewer with a piercing doll-like gaze (Figure 1). The eyes are stylized and repetitively characteristic of every portrait but one. In addition, the portraits are all “framed” within the picture (Figure 2). Many of the portraits are labeled with idiosyncratic proper names or names of geographical regions or professions, often misspelled (“Miss Fanny,” “Milatary Chief,” “Endia Girl”).
Interspersed with the portraits are carefully detailed drawings of trains, steamboats, and early automobiles (Figure 3). In contrast to the somewhat stereotyped but compelling portraits, the drawings of machines tend to be much more detailed and “realistic,” although it is interesting that some of the steamboats have loops such that one might see on a children’s pulltoy (Figure 4).
Mysterious geographies and maps characterize some other drawings, often presented with enigmatic phrases that suggest a detailed fantasy world inaccessible to viewers (Figure 5).
There are some institutional-looking buildings, quite sterile and primitive when compared with other, more detailed pictures (Figure 6). A subset of drawings suggests gardens or maps seen from a bird’s-eye view and even one elaborate grid picture (Figure 7).
There are also many drawings of animals and birds, some beautifully and realistically rendered, some out of proportion (Figure 8).
Story lines are once again implied but are impossible to fathom without some sense of the artist’s thought processes (Figure 9).
Before the artist’s identity was known, Diamant dubbed him “The Electric Pencil.” This epithet refers to a phrase written atop one of the emblematic portraits of a woman holding some flowers (Figure 10). At the top of the portrait is the word “Ectlectrc” [sic] framed on one side by a tiny feathered quill and on the other by a tiny pencil (plus the word “pencil”). Many of the elements that characterize the artist’s work — turn-of-the-century garb, fixed and staring eyes, a frame — appear in this picture, including the beautiful textured feather in her hat, which mirrors the texture of the woman’s hair.
Among the many drawings, the curious misspelling, abbreviation or perhaps clever pun “ECT” appears, most strikingly under the portrait of a man and a large decorative image of a cigar, as well as on the doorplate of a building (Figure 11 and 12).
After the drawings of this artist were posted on the Internet along with queries about his identity, some very promising biographical data emerged. There is ample evidence to suggest that this artist was a man named Edward Deeds, who was born in 1908 and who, at the age of 17 (about 1925), was committed to State Hospital Number 3 after threatening his brother with a hatchet. He spent 50 years there. He was released from the hospital to a nursing home in the mid-1970s and died on January 9, 1987.
(Visit Electricpencildrawings.com for the complete collection of this artist’s drawings.)
Questions answered incorrectly will be highlighted.
What is your best guess about this artist’s diagnosis?
Diagnosing the Artist Through His Works
What can we infer about this artist to suggest why and how he came to produce this body of work? Like James Castle, the deaf and mute artist who wrote words and phrases picked up from magazines and printed matter, it is possible that some of the words and phrases that the “Electric Pencil” inscribed on his drawings were fragments of words and phrases “lifted” from the limited influences that he may have had access to.
We do know that State Hospital Number 3 was one of the Kirkbride asylums, which, at the time they were designed, attempted to provide enlightened institutional care for the mentally ill. These hospitals aspired to pleasant and stimulating surroundings for inmates that would be conducive to restoring mental health. For a time, State Hospital Number 3 was the largest building in the state of Missouri and was known for its beautiful grounds, elegant gardens, and farm animals. It is possible that a prominent stone eagle symbol on the main gates may be the prototype for frequent eagle imagery in these drawings.
With his inclusion of the letters “ECT” in a number of his drawings, Deeds might have been making reference to a type of treatment — electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — that he may have gotten or was simply recording what he observed happening to others in his milieu. (It might also have simply been a dyslexic abbreviation for “electric.”) It is impossible to know whether Deeds himself was even considered a candidate for ECT or at what point during the course of his lengthy stay he might have been exposed to a once novel treatment modality in well-established asylums. ECT was introduced into hospitals in the United States in the 1940s and was relatively widely used by the 1950s, sometimes administered en masse to groups of patients. It was a common treatment for many mental disorders and was used on refractory patients, not specifically limited to the treatment of depression as it is today. Whether or not this artist had ECT at some point during his stay at State Hospital Number 3, there is nonetheless a poignant irony linking these beautiful and mysterious drawings to an iconic symbol of a life lived in a state mental institution.
Why was Deeds confined for so long, and what could cause a 17-year-old to be committed and retained for 50 years? We do know that prior to his commitment he threatened his brother with a hatchet, but that is the only information that we have. Given the fact that there was little in the psychiatrist’s armamentarium in terms of diagnosis or individualized treatments, it is likely that this man had a condition that was unrecognized at that time. There are many signs in the artwork to suggest that Deeds might have had autism or a condition along the autism spectrum. It was not until the 1940s with the almost simultaneous publications of 2 monographs by Kanner and Asperger that we had a conceptual category to describe children who seemed to be intellectually intact but socially impaired.
It is very possible that in the early 20th century there were undiagnosed autistic children who may have become unmanageable or belligerent when they grew into adolescence if their rigidities and preoccupations were challenged by their unknowing families. At that time, there was no conceptual framework to dictate appropriate understanding and care. Such individuals, for lack of a better disposition, might have ended up sequestered for life in state institutions. Because autism is a developmental disorder and not a mental illness, it would not necessarily improve without a proper intellectual framework, leading perhaps to an interminable length of stay, such as Edward Deeds had at State Hospital Number 3.
It should not surprise us to realize that early psychiatric hospitals may have included individuals with a mélange of diagnoses that would probably include Axis 1 mental illnesses along with developmental and neurologic disorders.
The fact that certain themes in The Electric Pencil’s drawings are repeated might suggest a rigidity of preoccupation that one often finds in individuals on the autism spectrum. Similarly the idiosyncratic language such as we see in the inscriptions on the drawings may suggest a narrowed social perspective. At odds with the child-like, slightly mechanistic, and stereotyped renderings of people, The Electric Pencil’s other drawings suggest a kind of photographic, almost savant-like style when it comes to anything mechanical (Figure 13). One portrait is highly realistic (Figure 14), exhibiting an extraordinary attention to textural detail as reflected most dramatically in the images of feathers and quills that come up again and again in his work (Figure 15).
Some of the paddleboats look like — and may even be drawn to be — children’s toys (Figure 16). However, some of the cars have an almost faithful verisimilitude that suggests a kind of foreshortening and sense of perspective. This technique rarely comes easily to nonautistic people with no artistic or technical training (Figure 17). A preoccupation with machines and inanimate objects, mechanistic or stereotyped views of people, and idiosyncratic “expertise” are common traits of autistic persons.
Does it add or detract from this beautiful cache of “found” art to speculate about the artist’s diagnosis? Art never fully exists outside of a context, be it cave paintings or old masters. The context for many outsiders is often their own minds. Thus, some outsider art can represent an almost “pure culture” of the artistic impulse filtered through an unusual prism. Works, such as those by The Electric Pencil, are indeed “art for art’s sake,” not made for an audience or in synch with peers. For some individuals with social or emotional limitations, art can be one of the few conduits for self-expression. Certain well-known autistic artists could draw more proficiently than they could speak (Stephen Wiltshire, Jessy Park). Temple Grandin, who has become a widely known spokeswoman for those on the autistic spectrum, has used her ability to see things from unusual perspectives to make blueprints for sophisticated machines that are currently used throughout the livestock industry.
We know that all children draw and that children’s drawings follow a predictable developmental sequence. It is unusual for children to be able to draw in perspective (though many autistic children can). Similarly untrained adults without art, engineering, or architectural training rarely master the art of perspective without being taught.
Though we have limited biographical details about The Electric Pencil, we can likely assume that he had no time for training of any sort, institutionalized as he was at the age of 17. Therefore it is probable that his artistic skills were to some extent sui generis, unless he was taught some drawing techniques in State Hospital Number 3. In either case, he clearly made use of a talent for representation in the portfolio of drawings that is all that remains of one man’s artistic legacy. Were there more drawings? Were there other themes? We can only surmise from what we have that this man had a firm determination to pursue his themes in variation as well as to find an outlet for unrealized dreams and fantasies. Was he sociable? Did he have friends in the state hospital or were these drawings the way he dealt with isolation and confinement?
A Discussion of Outsider Art
Outsider Art can be defined as art that is made outside of a formal artistic tradition by individuals who frequently are isolated, living on the borders of society, and are sometimes mentally ill. Many outsider artists not only have had no artistic education but have had no education of any kind. Some of the more celebrated “outsiders” have been developmentally disabled, illiterate, recluses, deaf-mutes, former slaves, eccentrics, illegal immigrants, even homeless, and many of them have made their art from inside mental institutions or sheltered workshops. Three of the most esteemed outsider artists are Henry Darger, James Castle, and Martin Ramirez. Darger, whose work currently sells for 6 figures and about whom there has been much scholarship, was utterly marginal in terms of social status.
Henry Darger spent much of his childhood in a foundling home, worked as a janitor, and rented a small room that no one visited until after his death. When Darger’s self-styled workshop was being cleaned out, his landlords found a veritable treasury of drawings, paintings, collages, and writings all made in utter seclusion, clearly never intended to be seen. Darger’s gargantuan oeuvre included a novel of over 15,000 pages, a literary companion to his copious multimedia illustrations; it holds the record of the longest novel ever written.
James Castle, a deaf-mute who never left his small town or immediate family, used to scribble on small pieces of paper, matchboxes, and other discarded scraps, making drawings using charcoal and saliva, or making toys and constructions out of cardboard and string. His lifetime output was also huge and varied, and since his death it has been displayed in major museums.
Martin Ramirez was an illegal immigrant from Mexico and a migrant worker, whose obsessively detailed pictures of horses and trains are considered among the finest examples of Outsider Art. Recently a new trove of his work was found hidden in a suburban garage by homeowners who did not know its value.
Whereas mainstream artists often find their way to galleries, art dealers, or fellow artists, Outsider Art is often only found out when fortuitously discovered by someone else. The serendipitous discovery of the drawings of an individual who has been named “The Electric Pencil” was just such an accident of fate.
Outsider Art is typically created without a public’s approval in mind, done as a kind of objective correlative to what is going on in the artist’s mind. For this reason it sometimes does not surface and is often not protected or is overlooked. Such could have been the fate of this rich portfolio. Had the book of The Electric Pencil not been found, it would have been lost forever, perhaps a little like the future of a young man who spent his years sequestered in State Hospital Number 3.
The existence of Outsider Art makes it clear that the artistic impulse can sometimes flourish in isolation and may even have a relationship to certain kinds of psychiatric diagnoses. Though we do not want to reduce anyone’s art to diagnostic or biographical details, we may be aided in our understanding and, at times, appreciation of a work of art when we do know something about its background. The work of The Electric Pencil has a stark simplicity and a subtle mystery in terms of what kinds of stories or thoughts prompted the artist to do what he did. Why are these words juxtaposed with these images? What does the writing mean? Who were the characters? Unlike mainstream artists who have some conscious control over their work, an outsider artist like this one is more likely driven by a more purely unconscious and un-self-conscious process. The output is thus inevitably influenced by the structure of the artist’s mind. Although psychological and/or developmental factors can dictate or circumscribe the form of Outsider Art, surprising outcomes can emerge not in spite of an artist’s limitations, but perhaps because of them.
1. Kanner L. Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child. 1943;2:217-250.
2. Asperger H. Autistic psychopathy in childhood. In: Frith U, ed. Autism and Asperger Syndrome. New York: Cambridge University Press;1991. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511526770
Medscape Family Medicine © 2011 WebMD, LLC