Feature January 3, 2017

Entering the World of James Castle

How a self-taught artist independently explored the themes of 20th century art

Many art collectors and fine arts professionals in America and Europe are more familiar with the artwork of Idaho artist James Castle than most Idaho residents. Castle was a self-taught artist who was born in Garden Valley in 1899 and lived the majority of his life in Boise, until he died in 1977.

“James Castle’s art is a major force in the contemporary art world. The doors have been opened, and his art is included in major museums in America,” said former Boise Art Museum Curator Sandy Harthorn. “I can’t remember any art professional who didn’t quickly become fascinated by Castle’s artwork.” She met Castle in the mid-1970s and was instantly drawn to the complexity and beautiful forms in his art.

Castle’s art has been compared with French Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, Italian 20th century modern art master Giorgio Morandi, and American Abstract Expressionist Richard Diebenkorn. Castle has had 33 solo exhibitions of his art in galleries and museums in Europe, Southeast Asia and throughout the United States, and participated in over 30 group exhibitions. Hundreds of books, films, printed and social-media articles have critically examined the artwork of James Castle. His stature as an American self-taught artist plays a significant role in the study of art history.

“In Castle’s lifetime’s work, I think he addressed elements of aesthetics: line, color, form, shape, juxtaposition, composition, and explored a range of stylistic elements from realism to abstraction,” said Harthorn. “In his life’s work, Castle explored perspective, impressionism, and major elements that developed through the history of art. He discovered perspective for himself that took centuries for artists to develop. To achieve all of those realizations in his life’s work is a phenomenal achievement.”

The James Castle Collection and Archive is located in Boise, and managing partner Jacqueline Crist oversees the preservation, scholarly study, and loans of Castle’s artwork to major museums and institutions.

“James Castle is one of the great American artists, and he was a self-taught artist,” said Crist. She believes Castle has often been mislabeled as a folk or primitive artist, but these art movements do not aptly describe his work. Folk artists are associated with a community of artists from a specific region or cultural ethnicity; primitive art is defined as that of artists from undeveloped countries who have not been exposed to the technological advancements of the Western world. While Castle lived in rural towns in Idaho, he was not isolated from family, friends, and cultural norms of his time.

Respected art curator Ann Percy from the Philadelphia Museum of Art has spent years studying and researching Castle’s artwork. Her scholarly book, “James Castle: A Retrospective,” accompanied Percy’s curated exhibition of Castle’s work shown in major museums across the United States. Percy writes, “His art is imbued with a profound sense of place—the familiar milieu of the three small farms in Garden Valley, Star and Boise, Idaho, that he and his family occupied successively during his lifetime, which he depicted in ways both real and surreal—and is rooted as well in the visual stimulus of the broad range of popular mass-media publications and consumer products that entered the typical American home of the time. It was also, of course, a creation of his own remarkable mind, a mind that was always occupied, always curious, probing and analytical, persistently seeking visual solutions to fundamental questions concerning the structure of things, the ordering of serial imagery, the nature of language, and the borders between the animate and the inanimate.”

Castle taught himself how to draw and paint on paper, create constructions and books, and invented his own alphabet and textual pieces. He has been described as having a great curiosity, a passionate and obsessive love of drawing, and having created unique forms of artwork. Castle experimented with patterns, created stylized forms that he repeatedly drew in landscapes. His art ranged from realistic landscape depictions to abstracted art hinting at figures and the natural world.

Castle was born in rural Garden Valley in 1899 to Mary Scanlon Castle and Francis “Frank” Castle. The family was a large Irish Catholic family with nine children; two daughters died in infancy. The Castles lived a simple life of providing for their family’s needs through farming and serving as postmasters for the Garden Valley post office. Their home life was enriched by music, art and an extended family living in close proximity. They did not travel or have the means to purchase extravagant goods, but Castle grew up in a large family with close ties to the community.

Castle was born prematurely and was profoundly deaf. Two theories have circulated regarding the cause of his deafness. One is that Mary Castle rushed to help fight a fire at her sister Emma’s neighboring farm the night prior to her giving birth to James, and she gave birth a couple of months early, which possibly caused his deafness. Another theory, suggested by cousin Eleanor Scanlon Thompson, was that Mary caught the measles from her daughter, Nellie, around the time James was born. Subsequently, Nellie became deaf, and James was born without the faculty to hear.

In the art world, controversy surrounds the dilemma of whether art historians and curators should define artists solely by their work, or interpret art based on artists’ personal stories and classify their art by the handicaps or hardships in their lives. Crist offered, “The difference is the biography of outsider artists led the discussion on the artist. First you talked about the artist’s disability, and then you discussed the art. … Our stated goal was to place emphasis on James Castle’s art before learning about his personal story.”

“The work of James Castle stands on its own merit, without knowing James Castle was deaf and lived in rural Idaho,” said Cate Brigden, special projects manager for the James Castle Collection and Archive. “Castle captured the American rural West in a very pure, simple, quiet way. He depicted his subjects in every possible way. He explored and investigated buildings, objects, and people from every angle in his art.”

Castle’s art served as a means to communicate with his family and the outside world. Between the ages of 11 and 12, Castle’s parents sent him to the Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind, in Gooding, where he studied for the next five years. When he entered the school, Castle studied the oral method, which was based on lip reading and learning to speak. This proved to be an impossible task for Castle to master since he had never heard the spoken word.

Castle had three basic hand signals: “go,” “eat,” and “love”—the last of which was to place his hand over his heart. Harthorn remembers that when she met Castle, he made just a few guttural sounds.

Even with limited verbal communication skills, he was an integral member of the family. When Castle’s mother, Mary, was near the end of her life, she asked her youngest daughter, Peggy, to bring James into her immediate family and care for him for the rest of his life. Mary and all of Peggy’s siblings agreed that the family’s five-acre homesite on Eugene Street and Castle Drive should be given to Peggy and her husband, Guy Wade.

The Wades had four children: Gail, Georgia, Geraldine or “Gerry,” and Wes, who fondly remember Uncle Jimmy. He insisted on having a night for doing the dishes, he babysat his nieces and nephews, and he loved to watch Red Skelton on TV with the family. He adored his sister and brother-in-law, and even dressed like Guy and would put his thumbs in his overalls just like Guy. “James had a special bond with Peggy, and she immediately understood what James wanted,” said Crist.

Family members recall Castle began drawing once he was old enough to hold a pencil, and continued to create art until a few hours before he died. His body of artwork has been estimated between 5,000 to upwards of 20,000 pieces. Putting a number on the size of the collection is very difficult, since some of his art was lost, destroyed in a fire, or forgotten when the family moved to Star in 1923, and again when the family purchased land in the Pierce Park subdivision and moved to Boise in 1931.

Yet even with the lost artwork, the size of the existing James Castle collection might be one of the largest intact collections of an artist’s body of work. Art historians and scholars can study and research the collection and archives to understand the development of the artist through his lifetime of work.

“It is really touching how the family took care of him and respected his artwork,” Crist said. “He took up residence in an outbuilding in the summer, and he would work on his art all summer long. His relatives, nieces, and nephews knew they could not interrupt his work; they respected his space and would not interfere while James was creating his artwork.”

Castle was obsessive in his production of art. He created pictures using soot from the family’s woodburning stove, mixed with water and spit to create nuanced landscapes with beautiful gradations of the color gray. Castle fell in love with certain forms that are seen repeatedly in his landscapes and interiors. He also produced color pieces and assemblages with found objects from commercial advertising, string, cardboard and other found objects. Castle made handmade books and text pieces where he invented his own alphabet, numbers, and characters. The book covers were often made from matchbook covers, wrapping paper, and commercial packaging like cardboard soapboxes, butter cartons, and advertising flyers.

Castle would store his art in the rafters of the shed, under the floorboards in the foundation, and he would make small boxes out of cardboard or commercial packaging that would contain 40 or 50 small drawings. He was prolific and intense about constantly creating art.

“James Castle was very private and possessive of his artwork,” added Crist. “He did not give away his artwork. James became hysterical when visitors touched his art and when they asked to take away his art.”

Yet Castle saw his art as a vehicle for communicating with people. Crist was told by Peggy Castle that, “When someone visited, he would bring out a piece of his artwork to communicate with the visitor. He would tap the visitor on the arm, and then he would lean down to look at the reaction of the visitor to his artwork. If the visitor dismissed his art, he would never show that person another piece.”

Castle did live to see his art recognized by professionals in the art world. His art first received notice when his nephew, Bob Beach, took some of Castle’s artwork to his art professor at the Museum Art School in Portland, Oregon. The professor was intrigued by Castle’s work and an exhibit of his art was held at the school in March 1951. The exhibit, “A Voice of Silence: Drawings by James Castle,” was curated by the Image Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and then traveled to the Boise Art Museum and the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, California, in the early to mid-1960s.

“The first time I met James Castle was in the Boise Art Museum,” said Harthorn. “The family brought him in to look at his artwork that had been in the Boise Cascade collection, and was then donated to the museum and appeared in a 1976 exhibit. James was probably with Peggy, he recognized that it was his art, and he was really happy they were on the wall. He would touch them. He seemed pleased and proud. He knew his books and his artwork were important.

“It was the right time and the right place for James Castle to be discovered in the early 1990s. The right art professionals took interest, and Jacqueline Crist was the right person to share his art with the world,” said Harthorn. “Castle has a national and international reputation from being in major museum collections and in international art fairs. His work is very distinctive and recognizable. A part of it is that his personal story draws people to his work.”

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Territory Magazine.