Idaho’s most famous artist, James Castle, was born profoundly deaf in Garden Valley at the end of the nineteenth century. The self-taught artist spent his life around Boise drawing and creating. His talents garnered a few local exhibits in his twilight years, but the wider art world has only taken serious notice the so-called “outsider artist” in the last two decades. This new consideration has led to a fresh understanding of his work and revealed new depth in it.
Friends of the Castle family knew James for his art. They would stop by the family house in the outskirts of Boise and bring “Jimmy,” as his sisters called him, materials he could use for his projects. Word spread about his prolific output, and a few local museums in the Pacific Northwest showcased Castle’s art near the end of his life. But his sister and lifelong caretaker, Peggy, put the brakes on Castle’s rising profile when he died in 1977.
“When he died, she said she didn’t want people to come and ask for the art,” says Jacqueline Crist. “She packed it all up, and then she said, ‘When I’m cold in the grave, you can do what you want.’ She told the heirs that, and so they waited.”
Crist is the managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archive in Boise. The unassuming building housing thousands of Castle art pieces and artifacts is tucked away in the outskirts of the city’s downtown core.
“She (Peggy) died in the early 1990s and they waited a few years before they did anything with it,” Crist says.
Those few years came to an end in 1995. Crist, who had just opened her own downtown gallery, remembers the day nearly 25 years ago that forever changed her life.
“One of James Castle’s nieces walked in one day, about—it was the first month I was open,” Crist recollects with a smile. “She walked in one day with a cardboard box and it was just stuffed with Castle art and newspaper clippings and things. She set it on the desk and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about my uncle.’”
Crist instantly recognized the art, and so began her life’s work of being a steward of Castle’s legacy. As she navigated pieces into world class museums like the Smithsonian and MoMA, the work caught the eye of noted art collector William Louis-Dreyfus. In an effort to preserve Castle’s entire oeuvre and safeguard its future, he bought everything from the family and founded the James Castle Collection and Archive to manage it.
After being shut away in boxes for decades, the soot drawings and constructions made from twine and food wrappers by a deaf artist from rural Idaho were making waves. There was a retrospective on Castle in Philadelphia in 2008, a large show in Spain in 2011 and most recently he’s featured in a traveling group show called Outliers and American Vanguard Art. It opened in Washington DC, went to the High Museum in Atlanta and is rounding out its national tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Walking through the hushed gallery in Los Angeles that includes Castle’s work, Rita Gonzalez, the curator overseeing the show’s West Coast stop, says the room features self-taught artists who build entire worlds.
“It’s about artists whose entire oeuvre, or practice, can be said to be all consuming and involved in creating something larger than himself or herself,” Gonzalez says in a soft voice, gesturing to the art filling the space.
Castle never held a job. Watched over by his family, he was encouraged to spend his days creating: handmade books, the constructions and the drawings for which he’s most well-known, made with a mixture of soot and spit spread on paper with sticks.
“The drawings that start off the wall, focus on the exterior with these lawn vistas, exterior views,” Gonzalez says pointing to a few Castle drawings displaying farmyard scenes. “And then it kind of quickly goes into these spaces that I think he’s now more well known for depicting – these very intense, very cramped spaces that have meticulous detail.”
Those facets of the art Gonzalez homes in on – the scrupulous detail and the sense of a contained space – they’re hallmarks of art created by deaf artists.
“I fell in love with the artwork,” Brigette Lemaine says with a rich French accent. “It was like a goldmine for me because it contains many definitions of deaf art.”
Lemaine is a French scholar and documentary filmmaker. She’s made several films examining the deaf experience and is putting the final touches on a film about Castle premiering this summer at the International Deaf Congress in Paris.
Raised by her deaf grandparents, Lemaine’s first communication was sign language. She’s in the unique position to know the deaf and hearing worlds intimately. Rather than publish scholarly articles and books, Lemaine decided to make movies.
“It is because it’s impossible to write in sign language, and I want deaf people to have access to my studies and my films,” says Lemaine.
She sees a complicated deaf artist when looking at Castle’s work. A tumultuous inner life is communicated through the art.
“Sometimes he – he wants to explode because he can’t speak, and he can’t explain himself,” Lemaine explains. “But also, it opened him to [a] special way of considering the world.”
Lemaine says Castle didn’t want his deafness to be his defining trait.
“He wants to be what he is: a deaf person with dignity and very big talent,” pronounces Lemaine.
Castle’s talent is undeniable. It’s landed his works in collections around the world, and it continues to reveal itself to those people, like Jacqueline Crist, who know it inside and out.
“Every single day, and I am not exaggerating – and it’s very emotional, I see something that gives me something new about the work,” Crist says with genuine feeling. “It’s as exciting today as it was the very first day Geri walked in with that box.”
Crist is mindful the collection is held in a trust – that it’s her responsibility to guide it. With a large book and plans for future exhibits on the horizon, the key to Castle’s growing exposure is in her hands.
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