The Electric Pencil

The Electric Pencil

First published: Fall 2010

Around the year 1910, a patient at the State Lunatic Asylum No. 3 in Nevada, MO, executed some 283 drawings in pencil and coloured pencil, pen and ink on ledger paper bearing the name of the institution. Many of them are mysterious, meticulous and hauntingly lovely. The drawings are double sided and were sewn into a leather album, indicating the strong intention to preserve the corpus. In 1970, the drawings were found near a trash container in Springfield, MO, by a 14-year-old boy. Four decades later, he posted images of the entire album on the website of a local historian. Interest was so intense, it prompted a book dealer from Kansas to make a preemptive strike, driving directly to the owner’s home town and buying the entire album outright. He then sold them to a St Louis collector. When the collector later decided that he did not want to tie up so much money in a single purchase, he contacted Harris Diamant, a New York artist who had also seen the internet images. Diamant bought them, and that is how the drawings have come fully to light.

 

 

We narrate this history of discovery and transfer for two reasons: first, to indicate that major collections of work by Outsiders remain to be discovered. Consider the appearance of a large collection of Martin Ramirez drawings just a few years ago. Indeed, such discovery narratives constitute a species of origin myth for modern art – how history and chance combine to unveil splendors hitherto unknown, unappreciated and invisible to previous generations. The ur-form of the myth might be the discovery of Henry Darger’s work. Second, we tell the story to suggest a corollary, that in a media-saturated world, the likelihood of such artists working in complete obscurity, much less that their work, if glimpsed, would remain invisible for any extended period, decreases with each tick of the digital clock. So the myth of the isolated artist and his or her discovery when the time is at last ripe may be passing away before our eyes, but the drawings from Nevada sustain it, thanks to the curiosity of a 14-year-old boy (history appears in strange guises).

 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #70