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She’s an expert on James Castle, and never stops reconsidering Boise’s enigmatic genius

Andrea Merrell is the collection manager of the James Castle Collection and Archives.
Boise City Department of Arts & history, James Castle Collection and Archive
Andrea Merrell is the collection manager of the James Castle Collection and Archive.

The mystery of James Castle is nearly as all-consuming as the man. Profoundly deaf, he mainly communicated through art, using soot, spit and pigments squeezed from saturated crepe paper to create likenesses of buildings and landscapes.

Largely eschewing brushes and pencils, he fashioned tools from discarded sticks and broken fountain pens, but it wasn't until Castle was in his 50s that his work was recognized as extraordinary.

And for Andrea Merrell, the Collection Manager for 25-plus years of the James Castle Collection and Archive, her connection is much more than professional.

“It is very personal. It's hard to explain, but I think that I've realized that it has permeated my very being,” said Merrell. “It enhances your spirit.”

Merrell and Kristen Hill, the Cultural Sites Program Coordinator at the City of Boise Arts and History Department, visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about “Ways of Knowing,” the new exhibition at the James Castle House and a live curatorial talk set for March 4.

“He walked into the gallery and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘It's like a dream.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. James Castle… nearly a half-century since his death remains an enigma for many of us. He fashioned his art tools from discarded sticks and broken fountain pens. Profoundly deaf, he managed to communicate through his art. But it was not until he was in his 50s that his work was recognized as extraordinary. Mention James Castle to a stranger, and they might have a passing interest. Add the fact that his art has been showcased in some of the greatest museums in the world, and you usually have their full attention. Andrea Merrell is here. Andrea has been the collection manager for twenty-five years-plus at the James Castle Collection and Archive. Andrea, good morning.


PRENTICE: And Kristen Hill is the Cultural Sites Program Coordinator for the City of Boise, the Arts and History department. Kristen. Good morning to you.

KRISTEN HILL: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Andrea, the new exhibition at the James Castle House…the first thing that intrigues me is the title of this exhibition. Do I have this right? “Ways of Knowing.”

MERRELL: Yes, that's right.

PRENTICE: And I'm sensing that that is a doorway for us to walk through.

Boise City Department of Arts & history, James Castle Collection and Archive

MERRELL: And I say it because James Castle had a phenomenal ability to access almost any kind of thought that he had and it developed over many years. If anyone was privileged to really be able to see examples of all of his work and look deeply inside of it, not only for the images that they see on the outside, but what they see on the inner levels. And so it's so comprehensive, both inner and outer, that he was able to learn all the things that he learned and to express them.

PRENTICE: Kristen Hill, could you talk a little bit about the full-in commitment from the City of Boise into James Castle, his work and the outreach that you do?

HILL: Yes, the James Castle House and the James Castle project has just been an incredible project for the city of Boise. The house was purchased by the city in twenty fifteen and about three years of renovations were done on it prior to our opening in April of twenty eighteen. And you know, it's really a priority for us to educate the community about this gem that a lot of people in Boise don't really know about. So it's a really incredible opportunity for people to learn a little bit more about something that's very much their own history.

PRENTICE: Andrea, my first glance at James Castle's work and it put me back on my heels. But as I leaned in, what I found was a sophistication in his way of communicating.

MERRELL: I think that you're really correct. I think that in today's busy life, some people can sort of pass by what he did by saying, Well, my, you know, child could do it or being fascinated with his ability to draw or articulate. But one has to really have an introspective approach to looking at really looking at his work. And if someone allow themselves to remove themselves from being themselves and look purely at what is there in a drawing, it would impact them greatly. It has a subtlety and a beauty that just goes into a place where we don't access normally in our everyday lives. And but he had such a breadth of work that it's not just the color work, it's not just a stunt work, it's both mental and spiritual and emotional that he was able to express himself and and develop his own wisdom. And I think he did that through his art. I think he developed a wisdom for himself and a wisdom that we can access through his work by really looking at it and allowing it to impact us.

PRENTICE: Kristen, I don't think I've ever asked this before. Does the James Castle collection have particular resonance with men and women who may be hearing impaired?

HILL: Yes, absolutely. James Castle's story is one that I think reaches deeply into the deaf and hard of hearing community. There's a lot about his experience growing up and attending the Idaho school for the deaf and blind. That is really powerful and poignant. And we really have tried our best to do everything we can to incorporate the local deaf and hard of hearing community in our events. We offer free ASL interpretation for all of our events, both in-person and online. And we have recently been able to undergo a really incredible study of deaf space with mass architecture and design and really trying to approach the spaces that James Castle lived and worked in through that lens. It's been amazing.

PRENTICE: Andrea, I am fascinated by people who do what you do, but when I think of you doing this for 25 years-plus, it has to be certainly more than a professional connection.

Boise City Department of Arts & history, James Castle Collection and Archive

MERRELL: It is. It is very personal. It's hard to explain, but I think that I've realized it, especially over time, that has permeated my very being. It enhances your spirit. It verifies it edifying and edifying a part of yourself that is not easily identified with everyday life.

PRENTICE: We're very excited about the fact that there is a curatorial talk this evening. It will be a virtual event. Kristen, give our listeners a sense of how they can participate.

HILL: Our curatorial talk will be hosted on Zoom and that link you can find on the James Castle House website. It's JamesCastleHouse.org. And we're very, very excited. Andrea is the most knowledgeable person about James Castle, but I think I know I'm very excited to hear her thoughts on the show.

PRENTICE: Can you give me a sense of when these school tours do take place at the James Castle House? There has to be….that young man, that young woman… that somehow makes a connection. It's has to be a moment.

HILL: Oh yes, absolutely. It's amazing with kids when they do make that connection, it is so strong and so pure. One of the members of the Arts and History Department came to visit, and she had her children with her and her young son, who I believe is five years old, walked into the gallery and the first words out of his mouth were, It's like a dream. Wow, wow. So we know it's successful in

PRENTICE: The curatorial talk is this evening at [sic. 6 p.m.] And again, you want to go to JamesCastleHouse.org and get info there. We'll link to that as well. Thank you so very, very much. Best of luck this evening with the curatorial talk event. In the meantime, thank you and have yourself a good rest of your day.

HILL: Thank you.

MERRELL: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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