- The old farmer called them healing machines. In a clapboard
farmhouse without running water 20 miles northeast of North Platte, he
spent uncounted hours twisting baling wire, winding copper strands and
snipping tin pieces into hundreds of curios that surpass description.
- The old farmer never called them art and he never fancied
himself an artist, alchemist or healer, but he believed his inventions
harnessed a mysterious power.
- And he wanted to make them more powerful. So one day
30 years ago, he got himself down to North Platte and walked into Dryden's
- The young pharmacist at the back counter looked up at
the man with the soiled overalls, scraggly beard and jack-o'-lantern smile.
A bum, he thought, maybe a railroad transient.
- But the old farmer walked straight ahead and the pharmacist
saw something alive and disarming in those advancing blue eyes.
- "He wasn't self-conscious or defensive, he was coming
in ready to engage."
- The old farmer needed "earth elements." After
a few questions, the pharmacist produced several vials of mineral salts,
which he offered for no charge. The old farmer was delighted.
- Of course, the pharmacist had to know: What did he want
with the so-called elements? The old farmer tried to describe his creations
before inviting the pharmacist out to the farm to see for himself.
- Most people would have considered the old farmer an eccentric
quack at best, a disturbed fool at worst. But 26-year-old Dan Dryden accepted
the invitation to see Emery Blagdon's healing machines.
- On his first visit to the farm, it was pitch dark
on a moonless night as Blagdon led Dryden to a wooden shed about the size
of a single-car garage. A flick of a light switch left Dryden astounded.
- "It was just an explosion of color and reflections,"
he said. "It was probably the biggest surprise in the world to me,
this phantasmagorical display. The blinking Christmas tree lights were
reflecting off the foil. The contrast between the outside dark and inside
the shed was just over the top."
- They hung from the rafters and the walls. They covered
tables and the floor. Blagdon used baling wire as his primary medium, but
also steel, copper, aluminum, tin, glass, beads and even masking tape.
They contained recognizable geometric shapes, but were linked together
in abstract forms. Some resembled mobiles, others sculptures, but they
had symmetry, balance.
- The work of a benevolent visionary or the toils of a
recluse gone mad?
- Dryden made his own judgment after spending time with
the old farmer and learning his story.
- Blagdon was born in 1907 in Lincoln County, the oldest
of six children. He barely received standard schooling, let alone art instruction,
dropping out in the eighth grade. Then he apparently lived on the road
during and after the Great Depression before an uncle willed him 160 acres
in northern Lincoln County in the early 1950s. There, he lived alone, raising
most of what he needed.
- About the same time, he started building his machines.
He wrote nothing down and never claimed to know how they worked, but he
believed they could heal any ailment and perhaps even prevent them.
- "His working hypothesis was these sculptures were
able to develop or modify or release energy fields that had healing powers,"
- The pharmacist didn't consider the old farmer a snake-oil
peddler. He wasn't selling his machines. Never even gave one away. He charged
no admission and would show them to anyone who was interested.
- More than the creations, Dryden was fascinated by their
creator. While he seemed comfortable with solitude, he wasn't antisocial.
He came off as sincere, gentle, soft-spoken. And he gave himself totally
to his vision.
- Dryden visited Blagdon and the healing machines again.
He couldn't help but compare the old farmer's life with his own.
- "I was totally blown away. For me, it fell immediately
within the category of a life-changing experience."
- Dryden had gone into the family business, but filling
prescriptions wasn't his passion. The old farmer inspired Dryden to follow
his dream. Within months, he left Nebraska for Texas, where he studied
to be a recording engineer. Then he moved to New York with his lifelong
friend, Don Christensen, a musician and artist. Together they built a studio
to collaborate on music and performing arts projects.
- In 1986, when Dryden and Christensen were visiting North
Platte, they learned the old farmer had died of cancer at 78. He had no
will, and his estate was put up for auction.
- The friends from New York placed the only bid for the
- "After more than a decade of absence, I happened
to plop in there at a pivotal moment," he said. Had they not bought
Blagdon's work, it's likely his creations would have ended up on a scrap
- Dryden and Christensen mapped the shed and marked the
location of each sculpture because they wanted to recreate the environment
Blagdon had invented. Then they catalogued and stored about 550 works,
including about 100 paintings.
- They became advocates on behalf of the old farmer and
his life's work. The art world categorized Blagdon as an "outsider"
artist, someone self-taught who works not to sell or exhibit, but
simply to create.
- In 1989, a 60-piece exhibit of the healing machines traveled
to Omaha, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Atlanta and Chicago. Then in 1997,
350 works displayed inside a reproduction of the farm shed were exhibited
in Lyon, France. The same collection was exhibited in 2000 at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art.
- In 2004, the Kohler Foundation bought the exhibit from
Dryden and Christensen for an undisclosed price. After repairing and cleaning
the healing machines, the collection will go on display in 2007 at the
John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.
- Between now and then, the best place to see Blagdon's
sculptures will be at the Museum of Nebraska History, where a dozen are
the centerpiece of "Weird Nebraska: Strange Stories and Amazing Facts"
exhibit, which opens Friday.
- In a community of collectors, curators and scholars unknown
to Blagdon during his life, his work is considered an essential contribution
to outsider art. And to many people who don't know the first thing about
art, the work is a wonder in itself.
- "It's very, very unique," said Terri Yoho,
executive director of the Kohler Foundation. "Someone (else) may do
a wire sculpture, but the magnitude of what he did distinguishes itself.
There's a lot of passion in this work. He was on his own mission and he
poured his spirit into his work."
- Of course the old farmer would have insisted his work
can also heal.
- Dryden wouldn't necessarily disagree.
- "It depends upon what you mean by healing powers,"
he said. "If you mean is there an emotional, psychological impact
that can affect your outlook, I would say yes, it definitely has powers
of some kind.
- "It helped me."
- Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you go
- Emery Blagdon's sculptures are part of the "Weird
Nebraska: Strange Stories and Amazing Facts" exhibit, which opens
Friday and will run for a year at the Museum of Nebraska History, 15th
and P streets in Lincoln.