James Castle was first and foremost an artist. An artist who did not hear, did not speak, and lived his entire life in Idaho, loved and sheltered by his large family. Castle was also prolific. He spent his entire adult life creating works on paper and sculptural constructions. Unlike many artists who work outside the mainstream, recognition came during his lifetime. In 1964, in connection with a one-man exhibition, the Director of the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum described Castle as “the most important primitive since Grandma Moses.” In the years since his death in 1977, he has become one of the most celebrated American outsider artists with a reputation that is both national and international.
James Charles Castle was born on September 25. Birth records say the year was 1899, but his grave marker and the family claim 1900. James was the fifth of seven surviving children of Francis and Mary Nora Scanlon Castle. The Castles lived in Garden Valley, Idaho, a rural area 35 miles as the crow flies, but 50 miles by road northwest of Boise in the southwest corner of the state. The 1900 census lists Francis as a farmer, but soon thereafter, the family added to their livelihood by running a general store, while Francis acted as the local postmaster and Mary took on the role of midwife. Castle was born at a time when disabilities were not well understood. The literature says that he was born “profoundly deaf.” Around 1910, his parents sent him and an older sister, Eleanor (b. 1892) to the recently founded (in 1906) Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind (now the Idaho School of the Deaf and Blind) in southeast Idaho. Nellie, who was hearing impaired due to a childhood illness, was reported to be an excellent student. She married in 1914 and was presumably home by then. James remained until 1915, but apparently with minimal effect. He was sent home described as having ‘resisted instruction.” The generally accepted narrative claims that he had neither proficiency in speech or sign language (which was, at any rate, officially discouraged) nor had he learned to read. There is no evidence that he used, in his subsequent long life, any of these methods of communication. This account seems puzzling and gives added credence to the informed speculation of his biographer, Professor Tom Trusky of Boise State University, that Castle might have had some form of autism in addition to an unknown degree of hearing impairment (James Castle: His Life and His Art [Boise, Idaho: Idaho Center for the Book, 2004]). From the time that he returned home, Castle lived with his family. In 1923, his parents moved to Star, seventeen miles northwest of Boise, where they ran the Star Grinding Mill. Frances Castle died in 1927 and, in 1931, James moved with his mother to the outskirts of Boise, near other members of the family. His mother died in 1948 and he continued to live in the family house with his sister Agnes (Peggy), her husband Guy Wade, and their four children. Other siblings and their families lived nearby forming a large extended family circle.
According to family lore, Castle began to draw by the age of six, that is, before he went away to school. He continued to draw at school, but it was discouraged as a diversion from the task at hand: education. He therefore had no access to conventional art supplies. At some point he devised his own materials, and though later on he was often offered more conventional tools, he persisted in what he had discovered for himself. He drew with soot moistened with saliva. He derived colors from soaking colored papers in water. His constructions were made from discarded materials collected from the farms, stores, and homes of his family. According to one sister, efforts were made to teach James how to do various chores, but, as at school, this was met with passive but firm resistance. The result was that James Castle lived with his family, making art that reflected the circumstances of his life filtered through a whimsical and often humorous imagination. His art shows its maker as an acute observer of daily life in rural Idaho. Castle’s family accepted and respected his compulsion to make art. They recognized the obvious satisfaction it gave him, and they shared his joy in his finished works. In this, he was fortunate to live in a time and place when a loving family could and would supply the social safety net for a marginal member.
Castle was “Uncle Jimmy,” strange, good natured, but a participant on his own terms of an extended family network. He might have remained a local eccentric if not for the intervention of a nephew, Robert Beach, who, in the 1950s, went to study at the Portland (Oregon) Museum School of Art. Beach showed some of his uncle’s art to an instructor, and James Castle’s “discovery” began. His art began to be shown in the northwest and, in 1963, he had a proper one-man exhibition at the Boise Art Gallery (now the Boise Art Museum). Castle was pleased by the recognition. Much of his early work had been lost in the moved from Garden Valley to Star and then from Star to Boise. In Boise, he crammed his living space with art, but also appreciated an audience. He customarily gifted his art to family members. During the 1960s, when his art began to find a market, Castle was living in a three-bedroom house with his sister’s family. They used the proceeds from sales to fund a modest home on the property, a trailer fitted up as a studio and home, for James. It was clear that Castle meant his art to belong to his family after his death. Discovery of the entire oeuvre has proved to be an ongoing process, with hidden caches revealed during renovations concealed behind walls in his house and that of his sister. The property has been restored and is now the James Castle House, a museum and cultural center operated by the city of Boise.
Within the confines of his chosen materials, Castle’s oeuvre is varied. In addition to drawings, there are sketches exploring shapes and designs, notably including letters of the alphabet and what appear to be nonsense letters, a series of homemade books, and constructions. A large number of Castle’s drawings are straightforward depictions of his surroundings, executed with soot from wood-burning stoves and saliva and demonstrating a sophisticated and entirely self-taught understanding of perspective. Others are more fanciful, mixing objective observation with creative incursions. Among these incursions are a series of totemic structures, upright rectangular slabs planted in the ground. The artist, of course, never offered any keys to understanding his art. The meaning of the rectangular totems remains unknown. Their basic shape, however, became the template for a series of people, whom Castle “dressed” as one might dress paper dolls. In Construction (Figure in Blue-Green Jacket, Red Lips), Castle gave the the figure a large, slightly squared off head. Its face greets the viewer with a direct stare, inquisitive, friendly and perhaps slightly puzzled.
While a great deal is known about his biography, important keys to understanding the man are missing in a way that is unlikely to ever be recovered. His family has vivid recollections of him and many stories. He lived with them for years and was a part of their lives. It is impossible to know, however, what James Castle knew. His observations of his surroundings reveal a keen intelligence. In his art, he often used letters. Were these solely decorative or is there hidden meaning? He was said to be illiterate, yet he made “books.” What we don’t know and his family didn’t know were the workings of his mind. This is part of the fascination with his art. It appears to be an emanation of the human spirit, unfettered from any external considerations of finances or social obligations. In that sense, he was “primitive.” He was a loving family member and fondly remembered. He obviously understood a great deal of what was going on around him. But in the midst of family, he was, in many ways, physically and emotionally, an outsider. His art seems a reflection of pure creative spirit. It leaves its viewers guessing what it means and applying their own understanding to what can never be known.