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 Pharmacy.
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,” Dryden said.
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 healing machines.
“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 heap.
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 email@example.com.
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.