Eddie Arning grew up on his father’s farm in Germania, Texas—about 50 miles northwest of Houston. His bouts of depression and anger eventually culminated in an attack against his strict Lutheran mother. He was briefly hospitalized following the incident. After being committed to a mental institution for the second time in 1934, he was diagnosed with so-called dementia praecox (more commonly schizophrenia) and remained in treatment for 30 years.
Like many other self-taught artists, Arning was introduced to art by a member of the helping professions. In 1964, a teacher employed by the hospital offered him wax crayons, paper, and coloring books. Their flat restricted forms seem to have shaped his visual sensibility, but his ability to master more complex arrangements of figures, colors, and patterns grew rapidly—as did his repertoire of materials and images. Arning’s early works appear to have been autobiographical, but he later took inspiration from newspaper stories, magazine photos, advertisements and other material from pop culture. He eventually began to work in oil pastels, which lent a soft, glowing, almost floating quality to his shapes.
After he was released from the hospital, Arning spent his final decade in a nursing home, where he turned his room into a studio and continued to work. He produced nearly a drawing per day, and gained a significant local reputation. In 1973, however, he was asked to leave the nursing home because of his refusal to abide by its rules. Arning then went to live with his widowed sister, but a long-established creative and physical equilibrium had been disturbed and he ceased drawing altogether. “That’s hard work,” the aged artist once remarked. Arning’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York, among others.