American, 20th century.
Born 1908, Panama; died 1987, Christian County, Missouri.
James Edward Deeds, Jr. was born in Panama to Edward Fount Deeds and Clara M. Deeds (née Coldwell). The Deeds family was stationed at the Panama Canal Zone while the edler Deeds served military duty as paymaster aboard the USS Marblehead. In 1912, the Deedses returned to Clara's family homestead in McCracken, Missouri, where they settled as farmers. 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. 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. The subjects of the drawings can be loosely categorized into several groups: machines, especially vehicles like boats, trains, and cars; wild and domesticated animals and birds; people, mostly adults; architecture and formal gardens; and landscapes. All share a meticulous, stylized draftsmanship that is the artist's own.
But it is the portraits, with their arresting gaze, odd vintage costumes and elaborate accoutrements, that are perhaps his most ambitious, inspired, and unforgettable images. They are also Deeds's most distinctive contribution to the Outsider canon: each one featuring the same mesmerizing, enlarged pupils, gray-shaded or "smutty" noses, thin, pursed mouths, and exaggerated chins. If that formulaic style indicates how Deeds liked to draw faces, it might also reflect how Deeds saw faces: all attention on the eyes, the proverbial "windows of the soul;" then the noise, a three-dimensional artistic challenge; then the mouth, and the empty words it spews, far lower in the artist's hierarchy. What uniqueness the artist could not, or would not, give to his sitters' faces, is instead imparted through their trappings and accoutrements. Attention is lavished on feathered hats, braided hair, trim costumes with elaborate patterning, ribbons and bows, and floral bouquets.
In 1973, the sixty-five year old Deeds had declined in health and was determined by doctors to be no danger to himself or others. He was released to a nursing facility in Christian County, Missouri, and died at that institution fourteen years later.
- Courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York
2013, James Edward Deeds, The Electric Pencil, Galerie Christian Berst, Paris
2013, Talisman of the Ward: The Album of Drawings by Edward Deeds, Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York
Collection abcd, Montreuil
Collection Treger Saint Silvestre, Porto
Collection Dammann, Basel
Dagen, Philippe, "James Edward Deeds," Le Monde, December 8, 2013.
James Edward Deeds, The Electric Pencil, exhibition catalogue with a preface by Philippe Piguet, Galerie Christian Berst, Paris, 2013.
Parker, Thomas B., Talisman of the Ward: The Album of Drawings by Edward Deeds, catalogue essay, Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, 2013.
The Drawings of the Electric Pencil, Electric Pencil Press, 2010.