First published: Winter 2019
Artist James Castle found all the inspiration he needed in his home; his artwork and that home are now inspiring other artists
James Castle’s home was his muse. It was the subject and setting for many of the self-taught American artist’s hundreds of drawings that he sketched with stove soot and spit, on scraps of found paper and cardboard. Born with complete hearing loss in 1899, Castle was not proficient in conventional communication, such as speech or writing. From an early age, his art was his way into the world and where he engaged most deeply with everyday life, whether it was sketching the two sides of a doorknob closely viewed from the edge of a door, or the lattice of wood inside a barn. At his longtime residence in Boise, Idaho, he even made his artwork part of the architecture, stowing it under floorboards, in the rafters and inside the walls.
Untitled (interior with hutch/interior), n.d., soot on found paper, 10.5 x 9.5 in. / 27 x 24 cm, photo courtesy James Castle Collection and Archive, artwork © James Castle Collection and Archive
When the City of Boise, Idaho, bought Castle’s house in 2015, it was decided that this context of home was key to its preservation, as was sharing – through public programming – the artist’s dedication to creativity as an ongoing, daily pursuit. At the start of the project, much was unknown about Castle’s life – including how he developed into such a skilled draftsman, and the meaning behind his imagery – and the restoration of the house was an opportunity for discovery. In 2016, a group of University of Idaho students and volunteers undertook an archaeological dig that unearthed his homemade artmaking tools, such as a wad of cloth probably used as a paintbrush, a glass lens and drawing sticks. Then in 2017, eleven drawings were discovered in the walls. Long hidden beneath layers of plasterboard added by later owners, one depicts the outside of the house in which it was embedded. Because Castle did not date or title his work and would often hold onto materials like newspapers or magazines for years, it is not clear when individual pieces were completed. Yet there are shared themes and experimentation with material that all contribute to a larger picture of his artistic progression. “Every time we learn something new, we see a new relationship of one artwork to another”, says Jacqueline Crist, managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archive, “and you see how interrelated the work is. It’s just a steady stream of his life.”
The James Castle Collection and Archive, also located in Boise, maintains the artist’s drawings and related materials, and has gifted 61 pieces by Castle to the City of Boise for display in the house where they were made. Although Castle’s family only moved into the Boise home in 1931, little work survives from his years in their prior Idaho residences in Garden Valley and Star. However, the houses themselves appear in his work, rendered through memory, showing an enduring close attention by the artist to his surroundings.
From about the age of six or seven, according to his family, Castle spent much of his time drawing. He was the fifth of seven children in a farming family that supported his artistic passion. He spent five years at the Idaho State School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding; this was the extent of his formal education and took place at a time when teaching hearing-impaired children focused on lipreading and spoken language rather than the more accessible signing. Instead of expressing himself through traditional language, Castle sketched, collaged and stitched together fragments of cereal boxes, ice-cream packages, envelopes and other household detritus, into a codex of everyday life. He captured the wheelbarrows and ducks around the modest family house in a then-rural part of Boise, and was fascinated with the pattern of the wallpaper and the simple form of a coat or bedroom door.