Art is often perceived as an expression of emotions that cannot be presented in words. Artists linked to different historical times based their works on their environment, the socioeconomic and political factors affecting them, and their perception of the world. Emery Blagdon is among the 19th century artists whose work continues to be exhibited in museums today to showcase the different skills possessed by the self-taught artist. His utilization of different mediums to present his artistic work makes his artwork unique. The art selected from his collection is an unidentified sculpture, which was part of his “Healing Machine” artwork. Blagdon was focused on creating objects that could be used to heal people by using natural energy drawn from things that were easily found in nature such as wood, plastics, copper wire, and steel. The art identified represents the interest that artists such as Blagdon and other people had in identifying ways of using electricity in medicine and the belief that electricity and other earth elements such as copper wires and wood could be used to create healing energy.
The artistic object identified is a sculpture from a collection of complex sculptures and paintings identified as the “Healing Machine,” which were created by the artist, Emery Blagdon. The self-taught artist created the sculpture between 1956 and 1986 in Nebraska (Kohler Foundation). The art was first exhibited by the Kohler Art Foundation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin who bought it from Dan Dryden, Blagdon’s friend. Dryden had obtained Blagdon’s collection from an auction conducted on Blagdon’s Nebraska farm after his death. Some of Blagdon’s healing machines paintings and sculptures are still part of the collection owned by John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan (Kohler Foundation). This art is currently exhibited on the first floor in the west wing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the collection purchased by the museum in 2015 (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Collectively the sculptures and paintings are referred to as the Healing Machine.
The art looks like a representation of an electric circuit diagram as it contains four sections connected to each other using popsicle sticks and copper wire. It has four markings on the points where the popsicle sticks are connected to each other. The medium used to create the sculpture includes steel, tin foil, paper tape, copper wire, and popsicle sticks. The popsicle sticks on the sculpture have been secured in place with paper tape and attached to an aluminum foil. The entire sculpture has been placed in a picture-like frame. The sculpture looks like it has been tapped down to the frame to ensure that it remains connected. The sculpture looks like it was handmade since the copper wires look like they were twisted and connected together to form the circuit (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Although it is difficult to determine the intended purpose of the sculpture from looking at it, it is clear that it was meant to be a representation of an electric circuit or was used as an electric circuit. Figure 1 below illustrates the art object selected.
Figure 1: Emery Blagdon’s Individual element from the Healing Machine
(Smithsonian American Art Museum).
From the things seen in the artwork, the sculpture represents an electric circuit. Some of the recognizable symbols include the copper wires, which are commonly used in electric circuits to conduct the electric current, the aluminum foil, which is a known electric conductor, the tape used to hold the artwork together, the popsicle sticks, which seem to connect the different parts of the electric circuit. The objects used on the artwork are different from those used in modern electric circuits, which suggests that the creator of the artwork either did not have access to quality products or used makeshift products to develop his electric circuit (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Considering this artwork was created at a time when people were fascinated with the use of electricity in medicine, the sculpture might have been developed to illustrate the electric circuits that form the electric appliances used in medicine (Umberger, Doss and Kohler 208). Although the artwork was part of an extensive collection, it clearly represents an electric circuit.
Until about a decade ago, Blagdon was only recognized for his artistic skills by a small number of people, who had either encountered his work or lived in within his neighborhood. Emery Oliver Blagdon was born in central Nebraska in 1907 and died in 1986. He was the oldest child in a family of six children. He studies up to the 8th grade before dropping out of school. As a young man, Blagdon had worked on a farm and at a mill in the North Platte before traveling to the West Coast, where he worked as a gold prospector. He returned to his hometown because his mother had cancer and was severely sick. After his mother’s death, he continued staying on the farm with his father and worked different odd jobs in the areas to support his family. In 1951, his father died of lung cancer and in 1955 Blagdon’s uncle, who was Blagdon’s close friend died and left Blagdon an inheritance of approximately 160 acres of land (Longhauser and Szeemann 152). Blagdon lived in the property he inherited until he died.
Blagdon’s artistic drawings and sculptures were fueled both his grief, his love for art, and his need to develop things that could protect people from illnesses. His experience with the illnesses that had affected his parents, their death and that of his uncle is believed to be part of the reason why he was interested in coming up with a healing machine that could rid people of their sickness and prevent their deaths. Blagdon had also obtained some skills from his father, who had been interested in forming sculptures from copper wires before he died. He methodologically decorated some of his sculptures and paintings with copper wires, magnets, tin trimmings, and nails to create a circuit board effect. He obtained most of the materials he used in the early 1960s from local auctions (Umberger, Doss and Kohler 205). Like many artists who did not receive formal art education, Blagdon was self-taught.
Aside from the illness and death of Blagdon’s family members, Blagdon’s also created his works because of his fascination with electricity and its role in healing. None of Blagdon’s work was commissioned at the time he was creating them as his works were mainly based on his quest to develop a healing machine that could protect people from diseases. In terms of context, Blagdon created his work towards the end of the 19th century, at a time when people were fascinated with the invention and use of electricity in medicine. During this period, doctors had started using electrical currents to seal or cauterize blood vessels when performing surgeries. Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval, a French biophysicist, is credited for being the first physician to use electricity during the late 19th century to minimize pain when working with conscious patients. Blagdon was captivated and inspired by the works of such medical professionals and focused on learning about electrical circuits, use of electricity in medicine and scientific advances in these fields through his radio and television (Umberger, Doss and Kohler 208). He also suffered from arthritis and experimented on himself with copper bracelets to assess their palliative effect in reducing his arthritis pain.
Blagdon can be described as a man who was more than an artist based on his experiments with electricity and his commitment to solving people’s health problems through his creations. His artwork represents the belief commonly held by people during the late 19th century that electricity could be used in medicine to improve the management of patients and significantly reduce pain during medical procedures. Blagdon’s art was meant for both its aesthetic appeal and functional use as his work represented his quest to use electricity and the scientific discoveries that he learned through his radio and television to create objects that could be used for healing. Art objects such as the one described in this paper, which was part of Blagdon’s “Healing Miracle” collection, represent the beliefs that he held regarding the use of natural energy or electricity in healing.
Kohler Foundation. Emery Blagdon. 2020. http://www.kohlerfoundation.org/preservation/major-collections/emery-blagdon/.
Longhauser, Elsa Weiner and Harald Szeemann. Self-taught artists of the 20th century: An American anthology. Chronicle Books, 1998.
Smithsonian American Art Museum. Untitled (Individual element from The Healing Machine). 31 March 2015. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/untitled-individual-element-healing-machine-111107.
Umberger, Leslie, Erika Doss and John Michael Kohler. Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists. Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.