From Trashcan to Museum


A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day.                        Lewis Mumford

Harris Diamant was surfing eBay, looking for the odd piece of optical equipment or base material for his sculpture, when he came upon three outsider drawings offered by a dealer in Lawrence, Kansas. Having been a professional in antiques and folk art most of his life, Harris knew he was looking at something extraordinary. The drawings lasted only minutes online. The seller, who had unusually used his own name on the posting, had been inundated with phone calls. Harris also tracked him down. He learned the art included an additional one hundred forty-three pages of two-sided drawings carefully extracted from a handmade book made of fabric, leather and found cardboard.

Unfortunately, the entire volume had already been sold to a man in St. Louis. That man, John Foster, was so intent on owning the collection, he called in sick and drove five hours to secure it without quibbling at a price which would apparently empty his checking account. (Foster has his own fascinating blog about considerably more than this single marvelous discovery).

Accustomed to the vicissitudes of the market, Harris left his name.

Only days later, Foster realized: “I acquire art to hang on my walls…there were too many and they belonged together…” He got in touch with Harris. “I flew up to Cambridge where his son was playing racquet ball at Harvard,” Harris recalls, “He opened up his kit bag. I had a certified check in my pocket.” Harris felt as if he was buying The Dead Sea Scrolls. (Foster’s description of the transaction makes it clear he felt the same way). Every page was an obsolete invoice from State Lunatic Asylum #3, which had become scrap paper. There were drawings on both sides made with crayon, pen and colored pencil, compass and ruler. “They looked a lot like folk art from the 1800s, but were apparently from the 1930s and 1940s.” The work was deacidified for conservation purposes. Study, research, and investigation (including the hiring of a detective) followed.

The Hospital, built in 1890, and destroyed in 1991, had been a Kirkbride facility, a system of mental asylum design advocated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride in the mid-19th century. These were building plans based on a philosophy of moral treatment of the insane. Wings were arranged to promote privacy and comfort, windows placed to optimize light and fresh air. Most institutions included surrounding acreage, often with farmland. This one was primarily self sustaining, even generating its own energy. There were about thirty such places around the country at the time. It’s impossible to know how much of what the patient/artist depicted was observed prior to incarceration, what might’ve been copied from magazines or newspapers, and which images were observed on the grounds.

Committed in 1925 at seventeen “because he went after his younger brother with a hatchet,” the patient was released forty-three years later into a nursing home because of failing health. He died there. The collection was produced entirely at the hospital, provoked, it’s conjectured, by ECT (electro convulsive therapy). “Despite the destructive therapy, he retained the impulse and had the wherewithal to make wonderful art.” And to bind the pages into a keepsake album indicating his strong desire to preserve the work intact. No drawings turned up at the nursing home. “It’s very typical of an outsider artist to stop producing when things change radically. He may no longer have had the need.”

“The drawings are all over the place,” Harris comments. Clothing is Victorian and often very detailed. Furniture is American Empire. Cars are utterly realistic but from about 1910. Boats and trains seem fantastical or perhaps, toys. There are circus pictures, stylized plants, landscapes, buildings, a veritable bestiary, and lots of people with wide staring eyes which appear to be portraits and are often named. The art has the naïve quality and untrained execution associated with outsider work and a buoyancy one mightn’t associate with the circumstances. It’s precise, imaginative, and rather haunting.

When the patient’s belongings were turned over to his family, they were evidently relegated to an attic. In a subsequent move, the album mistakenly ended up in the trash, where, in 1970, it was retrieved by a rummaging fourteen year-old boy and stashed in yet another attic. Thirty-five years later, the curiosity was posted on the web site of a local historian. The Kansas book dealer, who was researching Kirkbride institutions, saw the posting, contacted the now fifty-four year old, and bought it… the work passed to John Foster and then, to Harris Diamant. Positively cinematic, isn’t it?

Harris titled the collection “The Electric Pencil” after a drawing with the word ECTLECTRC PENCIL written above it and the medium employed. The Electric Pencil Press has produced a strikingly handsome hard-covered volume designed by Harris’ wife Neville Bean, which contains photography of the original pages and an essay by art critic and curator, Lyle Rexer. The book is itself art. For further photographs of the plates and purchase of the book, go to

After four years, a few beautifully framed drawings were reluctantly sold at the recent New York Outsider Art Fair. Museums are circling. Like the true aficionado he is, Harris would like to keep the rest of collection intact and to show it all, borrowing back the missing pages. Ultimately, a purchase in its entirety would best benefit both art historians and the public. In the meantime, Harris and Neville continue to delve into the patient/artist’s past in hopes of further illumination.

All unattributed quotes are Harris Diamant.

One Response to From Trashcan to Museum

  1. Fascinating story. As you suggest, you should prepare a movie treatment of it. I can’t believe Harvey Weinstein or Steven Spielberg wouldn’t snap it up.

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