After years riding boxcars and working odd jobs, Emery Blagdon returned to the Sand Hills of west-central Nebraska where he had been born. There, he helped his parents farm their land. In his spare time, he made small intricate shapes out of bent wire that he joined into complex assemblages, incorporating masking tape, sheet metal, aluminum foil, and waxed paper along with mechanical odds and ends picked up at yard sales. He also painted on cardboard and wood using strong, bold colors.
In the early 1960s, Blagdon built a two-part shed behind his house. The small entry served as his workshop, and the larger space behind became an increasingly dense environment filled with his creations. He illuminated the site with strings of Christmas tree lights and hand-painted light bulbs in coffee-can fixtures attached to the floor.
Inspired in part by having watched his parents die of cancer, Blagdon worked for nearly thirty years on sculptures and paintings he described as “Healing Machines.” He did not consider himself an artist. Rather, he was fascinated by electricity and its potential for healing at a time when “electropathy” was widely sought as a form of alternative healing. He believed that, through the complex and diverse materials in the shed, he could channel the powers of the earth to cure illnesses.
Visitors described the environment’s effect as overwhelming. Dan Dryden, a local pharmacist from whom Blagdon purchased elements he believed would help the functionality of his machine, said, “It was as though the universe had come into the shed, and all the stars were contained in the great mass.” It was, for him, “a life-changing experience.”
Following Blagdon’s death in 1986, the property was slated for auction. With friends, Dryden bought The Healing Machine and the pieces left in the workshop. They photographed, mapped, numbered, and catalogued each piece. In 2004, Kohler Foundation, Inc. acquired The Healing Machine, consisting of some 400 individual components. In 2007, following a major conservation initiative, the foundation gifted Blagdon’s Healing Machine to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.