Emery Blagdon, creator of a unique sculpture he dubbed the “healing machine,” lived most of his life quietly in the Nebraska Sandhills. After Blagdon passed away in 1986, his work garnered enough attention in the art world to be displayed in several museums and exhibitions. NET News talked with Connie Paxton, Emery Blagdon’s great-niece, about the man behind the art.
NET NEWS: How would you describe Emery Blagdon?
CONNIE PAXTON: He was probably one of the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever met. He was genuine and thoughtful, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. And if you needed help with anything, he was probably the first person there.
NET NEWS: How did you know him?
PAXTON: Our house was about a half-mile from his house. As children we’d ride our bikes up, he’d fix tires, we’d spent birthdays, holidays, Christmas. He’d come to coffee at my mom’s. My mom would drive him to town after he stopped driving. We just grew up living next to him.
NET NEWS: You were able to see some of the work he was doing?
PAXTON: Yes, watched him make pieces or paint. He would show you new pieces that he’d added to the healing machine. He was very excited when he had new pieces added. He also liked to take different plant specimens and put them under the microscope and show them to us. And as children that was a really big deal to see how they changed and grew under the microscope.
NET NEWS: What motivated him?
PAXTON: In the beginning it was to pass the time. He loved to work with his hands, recycling things, going to acutions and buying old carburetors and TVs and radios and taking them apart and seeing how they worked. He was fascinated by science. And he liked taking that material and making something new and putting it in the healing machine. Each piece was very intricately, either by hand or with pliers, twisted and turned into a piece that went into the healing machine.
NET NEWS: And when you visited, how did he explain the healing machine to you?
PAXTON: He couldn’t. He would tell you that. He couldn’t explain how it worked. He was very excited about the new pieces, he wanted you to touch it and feel the energy it produced. He would put his hand up to it and ask you if you could feel the energy. There were no lights within the building and there were lots of other lights woven into the machine. As a child, when he turned the lights on in the healing machine, it was like it came alive. There would be tin foil and copper and beads, and there was always a cool breeze that blew underneath and it was always kind of chilly in there even though it might be 100 degrees outside.
NET NEWS: I’ve read the reason Blagdon created his “healing machine” was because some of his family members died when he was young, and that was a factor in his art.
PAXTON: He was very close with his mother, she died of stomach cancer. His dad died from complications of lung cancer after a surgery. His sisters had breast cancer. I think not understanding and not being able to help in any capacity to ease that pain was very traumatic for him. He was a very sensitive, kind, caring person and watching them go through that was very difficult for him.
NET NEWS: Did he consider himself an artist?
PAXTON: No, he called them his "pretties," he didn’t call them art. But toward the end it became an obsession. He loved doing it and adding pieces, he loved showing people. He was always open to having people come, he loved having company. Sometimes people talk about that he was a recluse, and that isn’t true. He loved people and he loved showing his work to anyone who stopped by, whether it be someone who just heard about his work or someone in the community, family, friends. I know people think he spent a lot of time alone, but that’s not true.
NET NEWS: What did he do before he started to create the healing machine?
PAXTON: As a young man he traveled. He helped on the farm with his dad until his death. He also worked out at different ranches, he loved horses and worked with them a lot in the hay fields. He worked at several saw mills. He leased out his land, he wasn’t crazy about farming the land but he always worked outside. And he kept two gardens going all the time, canned all of his own fruits and vegetables, baked bread for himself. He was very self-sufficient and I think that comes from the depression and having to learn to survive with the bare essentials.
NET NEWS: Do you think his choice of materials was influenced by his rural Nebraska surroundings?
PAXTON: Yes, and I think growing up during the depression, you used what you had. You recycled and repurposed all of those things. Whether it be plastic, or beads my grandma used to make necklaces, or paints that my brother had from a paint-by-numbers set, or a model car. All of those things he incorporated into his work.
NET NEWS: Given that he lived most of his life with little notice paid to his work, what do you think he’d think of his work being displayed in art museums around the country?
PAXTON: He talked about it with my grandma that he hoped the work would be able to stay on the farm, which wasn’t possible, it just couldn’t be cared for properly there. I think had he seen where it’s been and how much attention it’s gotten over the years, I think he would have been very excited about that. He loved showing his work and I think he’d be very pleased with the number of people who have viewed his work since he’s been gone.
Hear how the “Healing Machine” was saved and preserved.
Tune in Sunday, August 18th at 9:30 PM Central on NET1 to see the premier of an NET documentary on Emery Blagdon’s life and inspirations.