struggled back from the brink of mental and emotional instability with the help of art. He was born to German immigrants who settled in Austin County, Texas, wherehis father worked as a farmer. Signs of his illness appeared in Arning’s mid-twenties. Cycles of depression and withdrawal followed by violent outbursts occurred withincreasing frequency, and in 1928 he was committed to the Austin State Hospital. He was released a year later but recommitted in 1934, this time for thirty years.A turning point in Arning’s life came in 1964. That year he was moved to a nursing home, but perhaps more importantly, his artistic creativity drew the attention of a perceptive hospital aide. Helen Mayfield noticed that, instead of merely filling in the printed shapes in the coloring books she offered him, Arning added freehand linesand chose unusual color schemes. Encouraged by Mayfield, Arning soon graduated to blank sheets of paper, initially drawing on recollections of his boyhood for mostof his subjects: animals, plants, farm implements, windmills, and automobiles. Eventually he added people to his iconography, and he switched from wax crayons to oil pastels. As his confidence increased, he developed the habit of deriving inspiration from the printed photographs and graphic artworks that appeared in magazines andnewspapers.Yet Arning never slavishly copied pictures. Instead, he transformed them into bold and unique statements reflective of his inner vision. Generally, he retainedbutvastly simplified-key elements, preferring abstract shapes and graphic lines. Consequently, he reduced everyday objects into compelling, abstract images that communicate a world from a fresh and unexpected viewpoint. A sharp eye for color aided his efforts; whether explosive or subtle, his color combinationsare unpredictable and visually arresting. His
(c. 1965) is one such composition that Arning structured using flattened schematic shapes to depict threedark-skinned people (two men and a woman) dressed to play tennis. The players’s faces are articulated using bold striated marks similar to those found on Africanmasks, and the background is blocked in using unmodulated areas of intense greens, blues, and whites.In 1973, Arning left the nursing home to live with a widowed sister, a change that seemingly disrupted his creative drive. Drawing at this point became “hard work,”and he no longer savored the pleasure and pride it had once brought. His productive period had been fruitful, though, resulting in several hundred drawings. Dedicatedfriends ensured the preservation of his work and, ultimately, their discovery by the larger art world. Without Mayfield and her husband, Martin; Robert and BettyCogswell; and Alex and Ivria Sackton and their children, Arning’s talent might have lain dormant or been appreciated by only a few.
Luck, Barbara R., and Alexander Sackton.
Eddie Arning: Selected Drawings, 1964–1973.
Williamsburg, Va., 1985.Maresca, Frank, and Roger Ricco.
merican Self-Taught Artists: Paintings and Drawings by Outsider Artists,
New York, 1993.Rumford, Beatrix T., ed.
American Folk Paintings: Paintings and Drawings Other Than Portraits from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.