Dan Dryden was logging another sleepy day behind the pharmacy counter of the family drugstore in North Platte in the summer of 1975 when he looked up to see Emery Blagdon coming down the aisle. Out there in the windswept big-sky country of Nebraska, Blagdon was not your ordinary customer. Bushy-browed and shaggy, he had a purposeful presence and the most extraordinary eyes the 26-year-old pharmacist had ever seen. "Bright blue, intense, amazing eyes," Dryden recalls. "Piercing, but gentle."
Blagdon had come to North Platte from his home in the desolate sandhills 25 miles north to purchase "elements." When he told Dryden he needed them for "healing machines," Dryden gave him some mineral salts. The young druggist was intrigued. Two weeks later Dryden took a drive after work to the ramshackle farmhouse where Blagdon lived alone to see his contraptions. He thought of it as a little adventure, a novel interlude in a slow Nebraska summer.
Blagdon came to the door of his house "like an apparition," Dryden says, and led him immediately to a shed in the rear. "It was a totally black night," Dryden recalls. "The ground around the shed was thick with crickets, and the air was filled with their sound." The old man opened a padlocked door and they entered an anteroom lit by a couple of bare bulbs. It was filled with hanging sculptural constructions, made mostly of wire, but also of tin, wood, and other scrap materials. "He pointed certain pieces out, passing his hand back and forth in the air near them," Dryden says. "He grabbed my hand and put it next to them, asking if I could feel the energy." Then Blagdon opened a second door, leading to the larger portion of the shed, and hit a light switch.
Nothing had prepared Dryden for what he would see next. The interior of the shed was jammed with sculptures, a sparkling, phantasmagoric forest of them, hanging from the ceiling, covering the walls, standing thick on the dirt floor. They were lit by strings of blinking Christmas-tree lights and by painted bare bulbs housed in coffee cans that magnified their glare. To Dryden, his eyes sensitized by the inky night, this blaze of light, shape, color, of unexpected density and intricacy, was overwhelming. With the cricket cacophony in his ears, and the musty, rancid steel smell of oil-covered wire in his nostrils, it held him in thrall. "It was such an excessive amount of stimuli, it shut down my mind," he says, "like stargazing, or a meditation so deep and heavy it doesn't allow your thoughts to wander. It was such a compelling vision. All I could think was, this is beautiful, beautiful work."
Dryden was looking at the results of two decades of obsessive labor. Blagdon, a bachelor farmer with an eighth-grade education, had inherited the farm in 1954, when he was 48 years old. He had never produced any art or inventions before, but from that time on he gave himself entirely to the construction of the machines. He believed they generated energy fields that could prevent and cure disease, and he allowed neighbors who suffered from arthritis or other ailments to enter the shed, hang out with the materials, and soak up the beneficial impulses. He couldn't explain how the machines worked (though he thought a scientist might be able to), and he built them intuitively, working without drawings or plans. When Dryden met him, he was struck most of all by the "Zen" of it: "I thought to myself, here is someone completely content in his work."
Dryden visited Blagdon once more that summer, then made some drastic changes in his own life. He knew he didn't want to spend any more of his time counting pills. He thought he might want to make music his work (he played a little keyboard, a little guitar), though he didn't see himself as a performer. He moved to Texas for a time, started a small recording company, then migrated east. Over the next decade the image of the inspired old man stayed with him. In 1986 he returned to the sandhills to find that Blagdon had recently died and his property, including the shed and its contents, was about to be disposed of at auction. To save the work--now the fruit of 30 years' effort--Dryden and two friends bought it (no one else was interested). When they got it all sorted out, they found themselves in possession of 600 pieces of sculpture and 80 paintings. They cataloged it, dismantled it, and transported it by bus to a warehouse in North Platte, where most of it is still in storage.
Do the healing machines work? Dryden says he found measurable voltage around them, though he's not sure what that means. What he is sure of is that Blagdon had something to tell us about "what it means to be happy--to let yourself do what you want to do." He should know. When he stood in Emery Blagdon's energy field--in a shed ablaze with his work, on a barren plateau, in a velvet Nebraska night--Dryden's world shifted. The man who "lived and breathed" the drugstore business for the first 25 years of his life--stocking shelves, trotting off to pharmacy school, and returning to endless days of dispensing pills--now lives and works in Manhattan, where he is a sound engineer for the Philip Glass Ensemble.
"The Healing Machines of Emery Blagdon," a sampling of Blagdon's work, is on exhibit through December 27 in the east gallery at 1800 N. Clybourn, under the auspices of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Check out the energy fields yourself from 2 to 8 PM Thursday and Friday, and noon to 5 PM Saturday and Sunday (closed holidays). Call 759-1406 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Don Christensen, Sally and Richard Greenhill.