HERE’S A STORY I HAVE TOLD TO ONLY A HANDFUL OF PEOPLE. It’s a good one, I have to say. One day, a couple of years ago, I came home from lunch and decided to check eBay (a bad habit) and spotted 3 very unusual portraits on paper said to be from the State Lunatic Asylum, Nevada, Missouri, and done around 1895 - 1900. I thought the three pieces I looked at were pretty astounding. I put a relatively high bid on the items and sent the owner an email to find out if he had more. Within 20 minutes, the man called me.
He explained that he had already pulled the three drawings from eBay, and had paid the fee to withdraw them from the auction. And yes, he had more. A lot more. Two-hundred and eighty some more, bound together in a hand-made book of rawhide and paper board of some kind. Ooo-kay, I am starting to get really interested now. Then he mentions that the reason he pulled the items from eBay was that he was getting calls from NYC and elsewhere, all desperate to see them, so “he figured they were worth quite a bit more.” He went on to say that one NY art dealer offered to buy the entire portfolio “sight unseen.” A price was given to me over the phone (for all of them), ending with a firm “and NOT A PENNY less!” My initial thought was “this is crazy.” Nevertheless, I told him that I could get in my car and be there in 5 hours if he would hold them for me. He agreed. I called in sick to the office as I was wheeling my car onto the interstate. It was a migraine, I think. In fact, my head was pounding from the stress. But my headache was mild, compared to what was to come.
Five hours later, it was dark, about 6 pm. I found the man’s house, walked to the door. He was very cordial. As I looked around, I saw that it was a simply furnished apartment, with lot’s of books, knick-knacks and “stuff.” This guy went to a lot of flea markets, I assumed. After a few pleasantries, we got right to to it. He showed me the portfolio, and started to go through each drawing with me, one at a time. I was in no mood to follow his pace. After looking at 4 or 5 drawings with him, I politely asked if I might go through them on my own. Thank goodness he agreed. I was so relieved to be on my own pace, alone with my thoughts. He retired to his computer, in another room.
Overall, the drawings were pretty incredible—some better than others, as one could expect from a large collection like this. Indeed, they were all on what appeared to be “day paper” or ledger sheets from the now defunct state mental asylum in Nevada, MO. Some of the lightly ruled paper actually had “STATE LUNATIC ASYLUM” printed on the top.
Here I was, looking at an intact portfolio of an anonymous artist’s work from over a century ago. Was the artist a patient? Was the artist a man—or woman? Was the artist a friend of someone at the asylum— or perhaps even an employee? There was no way to tell. My host explained that he bought the set of drawings from a man who had them sitting on a shelf for the last 30-40 years, and that he had gotten them from a 14-year old boy who found them “in a trash pile” in Springfield, MO in 1970.
IT WAS THE BIG EYES that got me. The fine detail. The mixture of fantasy, documentation, narrative, history— all of it! All the right bells were going off. The present owner had given the artist a name: “The Electric Pencil,” based on one drawing labeled with a misspelled set of words “Etclectric Pencil.” Personally, I was never (and am still not) convinced this was the true name of the artist, but whatever. Electricity was new, in its infancy, and this artist had something special.
Suddenly I realized I had a huge decision to make. I was exhausted from the drive, visually spent, mentally and physically excited but beaten down nonetheless. I was hungry and needed to get out of there—take a break, get a drink.
[ TO BE CONTINUED... ] Check back tomorrow for 5 more drawings and the conclusion to the story.