9781616894542 custom 39c6e478a34afbed9d5879845f153af9e2550e79 s300 c85The story of James Edward Deeds, Jr., who cre­ated this col­lec­tion of haunt­ing sketches while locked inside a men­tal insti­tu­tion, is both inspir­ing and tremen­dously sad, an extreme case of cre­ativ­ity melded with men­tal illness.

Born in Nevada, Mis­souri, in 1907, James Edward Deeds was a shy boy abused by an author­i­tar­ian father. At age twenty-​eight, after con­fronting his brother Clay with a hatchet (whether seri­ously or in jest is unclear), he was taken to State Hos­pi­tal #3, where he would spend the next thirty-​seven years, under­go­ing drug ther­apy and elec­tro­con­vlul­sive shock ther­apy. His poignant draw­ings dur­ing that time – drawn on Hos­pi­tal ledger paper – came to light only recently, after hav­ing been lost to the world for over three decades.

Look­ing at Deeds’ draw­ings is a jour­ney to another world, not the one that Deeds actu­ally inhab­ited, but a quaint, gen­tle era of long-​haired women in plumed hats, grace­ful arbors, and stately pad­dle­boats. Despite their benign charm, the draw­ings seem infused with a quiet under­cur­rent of hor­ror. Deeds’ peo­ple stare out at the viewer with round, stunned eyes and pose stiffly, like peo­ple trau­ma­tized by some­thing so hor­rific that, once seen, can never be forgotten.

Some draw­ings seem to con­tain cryp­tic mes­sages. A par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing one, #33, shows a small, hat­ted man with the cap­tion WHY.DOCTOR. Daw­ings #94 and #95 con­tain the ini­tials ECT, a ref­er­ence to the ther­apy Deeds was forced to endure.

The book’s title comes from draw­ing #197, a metic­u­lous por­trait of a woman point­ing to a bou­quet of posies in her other hand. Deeds cap­tioned the draw­ing ECTLEC­TRC, a ‘mis­spelling’ of the word ‘elec­tric’ in which the ini­tials ECT occur twice and which some have inter­preted as another ref­er­ence to shock treatments.

Deeds story is a heart­break­ing one, and I found the 282 draw­ings both fas­ci­nat­ing and dif­fi­cult to look at. For all the sweet nos­tal­gia for some bygone era the artist never actu­ally knew, they are pow­er­ful and some­times wrench­ing to behold. His draw­ings are surely a tes­ti­mony to the spirit of some human beings to cre­ate art under the worst pos­si­ble circumstances.

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