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Eddie Arning


Eddie Arning
Man Sitting on Post, 1968
oil crayon on paper

Born to a German family in Texas, Eddie Arning lived a rural farm life for his first thirty years. The next sixty-four were spent mainly in hospitals and institutions, but during this time he discovered his creative talents, creating 2,000 to 2,500 drawings in a period lasting only nine years.

The patriarch of the Arning family, Christoph, emigrated to Germania, Texas with his family while only a boy of six years old in 1874. His future wife, Lena, also a German emigrant, settled in the area when she was fifteen. The couple had five children; Eddie Arning was born on January 3, 1898 in his grandmother's house where the young family lived until 1905 when they moved to their own, newly purchased, farm. German was spoken in the household and the surrounding community, and their Lutheran faith was practiced. Eddie received six years of formal schooling in addition to his year of confirmation classes in the Lutheran church.

Eddie Arning lived and worked on his parent's farm until he was thirty years old. However, in his mid-twenties, he began to demonstrate violent outbursts and destructive behaviors. These actions culminated in an attack on his mother. In 1928 he was found to be dangerous by reason of insanity by a jury at the Austin County Court in Bellville, and subsequently was sent to the State Hospital. After a year of treatment, he returned home, but as symptoms began to reappear, he was committed to Austin State Hospital in 1934, diagnosed with "demential praecox". He remained there for the next thirty years.

It was during this period that Arning began his artistic activities in 1964, at the age of 66. Helen Mayfield worked with patients at the hospital, giving them drawing materials and artistic encouragement, though this was not art therapy as is practiced today. According to gallery owner Pamela Hill, Arning was given a blank sheet of paper to work with, but was uncertain of what to do. Mayfield gave him a coloring book instead, and he proceeded to fill ten books with pictures. Having gained familiarity through this practice, Mayfield again gave him a sheet of blank paper, this time it was accepted and Arning began almost decade of intense artistic creation.

Arning's early pictures were scenes of farm life and his memories before the hospital, as well as geometric shapes, symbolic images, and animals. By 1966, he was exploring human figures in his work, and after being introduced to Craypas, an oil pastel, in 1969, he switched to that instead of wax crayon as his primary medium. This new drawing material offered more color choices, important as color was an integral part of his artistic expression. This alleviated the need for using multiple crayons blended together in an attempt to produce a more subtle variation of tone than what was available.

A concern for the overall composition and design of the drawing is evident in his work. Through Mayfield's influence, he was encouraged to use the entire surface of the paper, leaving no portion untouched. He also worked at blending or rubbing the surface to produce a shiny, smooth patina. These traits, along with his inclusion of a drawn picture frame around the edges of the piece, give a sense of Arning's conscious intentions to produce a very finished piece. As he put simply put it, all he wanted to do was "make a nice picture."(1)

His penchant for collecting items may have played a role in his artistic methods. He accumulated things that peaked his interest such as bits of wood, metal, and clothing, and began to save magazine advertisements that caught his eye. These would become source material for his drawings. His works also interested a small group of dedicated patrons. Helen Mayfield and her husband, as well as Rob Cogswell, Alexander Sackton, and their respective spouses, admired Arning's work and kept him supplied with drawing paper and crayons. Cogswell began to catalogue Arning?s pictures, beginning in 1966. This project was taken up by Sackton after 1967, who visited weekly to collect and document the drawings. The sale of Arning's work paid for his nursing home care, and he was quite proud of the attention and respect that his art gave him. He signed early pieces, "Artis [sic] Work by E.A."(2)

In December, 1967, Arning was moved to a nursing home as his symptoms of mental illness subsided. He was formally discharged in 1970, but continued to live there until 1973 when he was asked by the nursing home to leave. The reasons for the institution's request are unspecified, but it is cited that Arning refused to follow rules and was uncooperative with staff. He moved in with his widowed sister, Ida Buck, but within a year ceased drawing.

Arning lived with his sister for only three years, and then moved to Westview Manor Nursing Home in MacGregor, Texas. He died on October 15, 1993 after a brief illness at the age of ninety-four. Though he had returned to the familiar setting of an institution, he did not resume his artistic activities.

One of the defining characteristics of Arning&39;s work is his use of source documents. However, rather than copying the images he culled from magazines, he used them as starting points for his original compositions. As curator Barbara R. Luck puts it, Arning used print sources as a "point of departure for his own individualistic interpretations." She further explains, "his reduction of natural forms into stylized patterns of interdependent abstract shapes may be less an impostion of his own view than a method of cutting through superficial trappings in order to expose some cohesive internal order of the objects themselves."(3) He was discerning though, as he deliberately chose elements to include or exclude, to emphasize or rearrange.

He was discriminating also in the pictures he chose for source material. His longtime patron and friend, Alexander Sackton, writes, "A resident of his nursing home, knowing his habit of collecting magazine illlustrations of his work, gave him a print of a Fernand Léger painting. When I visited him the following week he gave me the print; he said he did not use it because 'it's a picture already'."(4)

Particular elements are typical of Arning's developed style. While drawing hands in his pictures, he was careful to include all five digits, but they are usually shown as all the same length, resulting in a comb-like appearance. The bodies of his figures are usually shown frontally, but the head turned in profile in a sort of "Egyptizing" stance. The eye of the figure, however, frequently is drawn as though seen straight on, gazing directly at the viewer. Yet, in compositions with multiple figures, they often interact closely with each other.

In discussing works specifically in the Petullo Collection, it is fascinating to examine the apparent construction methods Arning used in his works. Strong, straight pencil marks can be seen beneath the thick coloring, and the precise evenness of lines suggests that he used a straight edge in his work. This detail can be seen in Three Figures and a Dog, 1972, where the pencil marks are quite clear. While he carefully controlled the construction of his figures and their placement, the surrounding fields of color show vigorous markings whose directional changes contrast with the relative discipline of the tight lines and angularity of the figures.

The captivating pictures of Eddie Arning combine simple, streamlined shapes and motifs that, while easily recognizable, open into a new world of imagery. His visual representations present vignettes to the viewer, and his use of color and energetic marks on the page leave a lasting, intriguing aesthetic impression.

Eddie Arning
Three Figures and a Dog, 1972
oil crayon on paper


Ames Gallery. Eddie Arning http://www.theamesgallery.com/ArtistPages/Arning.html)


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