Author of THE MAD SCULPTOR, Harold Schechter, writes about how he recently found himself the owner of a piece of Robert Irwin's art and how the extent of Irwin's madness truly hit home.
As its title suggests, the subject of my book, Robert Irwin, was a talented sculptor, regarded as a young artist of promise by influential mentors. Unfortunately (as per the title) he was also a homicidal madman. Despite his markedly violent tendencies--first manifested against himself when, in an effort to sublimate his libido, he attempted to slice off his penis--he was generally allowed access to sculptor's tools during his frequent incarcerations in mental institutions and, as a form of therapy, busied himself with producing various works. Some were small busts, commissioned by nurses, attendants, and doctors, who paid him to produce sculptural portraits of themselves or family members. Others were the product of his dark obsession with his unwitting love-object, Ethel Gedeon, the woman whose mother and younger sister, Veronica, would ultimately fall victim to his mania.
In the course of my research, I came across photographs of a number of Irwin's pieces, including busts of both Ethel and Veronica, and an ineffably creepy statue of a snake woman with Ethel's face and upper torso atop the coiled body of a serpent. I often wondered what had become of these and the dozens of other sculptures I knew Irwin had produced, many of which he sold to hospital and asylum personnel. Every now and then, I would even search on eBay on the remote chance that someone might put one up for sale.
Several months ago, from out of the blue, I received an amazing email from a woman who had read THE MAD SCULPTOR and wanted me to know that she was in possession of one of Robert Irwin's creations: a handmade wooden box, decorated on its lid and all four sides with bas-relief carvings of a female nude. Her late husband, she explained, had inherited it from his father, who had gotten to know Irwin while working as an attendant at a New York State mental asylum. Accompanying this message were a number of photographs of the box. I immediately recognized the nude figure in the carvings as Veronica Gedeon, who had earned money as an "artist's model" for sleazy "camera clubs" and who, I knew, had occasionally posed naked for Irwin when he boarded with her family.
I began a correspondence with the owner of the box, a lovely woman in her 70s named Emily, with whom I have since become friends. I asked if she'd be willing to sell the box and, after giving the matter some thought, she decided that her late husband, an avid fan of true crime writing, would have wanted me to have it. Emily, however, who lives in the South, was nervous about shipping it--so much so that she insisted on flying to New York City to hand-deliver it to me. I was startled at the size and beauty of the box when I first set eyes on it. The photos that Emily had originally sent me (one of which, of the lid, I've included here) don't do it justice.
Though I'd lived with Irwin for several years while writing the book, it wasn't until I saw this example of his work and held it in my hands that he became a palpable reality to me. And knowing that the beautiful young model portrayed so lovingly on the box would end up horribly murdered at his hands a few years later brought home to me, with terrible power, the depth of his madness.
-Harold Schechter, 2014
To find out more about THE MAD SCULPTOR and Robert Irwin, please visit here.