In 1899, in the remote Idahoan village of Garden Valley, James Castle was born completely deaf. For the rest of his life, he couldn’t hear, speak, read, or write. Our only glimpses into his mind are the drawings and collages he created over the course of nearly seven decades using scavenged paper and soot mixed with his own spit.
Castle became the art world’s own Boo Radley after it discovered him in the 1950s. Since then, major museums have devoted exhibitions to the unusual artist, and his work was even included in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Last year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired 54 of his drawings and paper constructions, and it has now mounted an exhibition of them.
Untitled: The Art of James Castle presents Castle as a psychologically and geographically isolated man who found in art his only means of expression. As Betsy Broun, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s director, explains in the show’s press release, “[His] drawings and paintings confirm that art offers a fundamental way to know ourselves.”
Part of the appeal of Castle’s work lies in his resourceful use of materials. He drew and painted on newspapers, magazines, catalogues, food packages, matchboxes, calendars, and even his niece’s elementary school homework. They’re the same scraps from daily life that people like Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg used, though it seems unlikely Castle ever knew about his more famous contemporaries. He died in 1977.
Though an outsider artist, the Smithsonian’s exhibition shows that Castle embraced his creative role and title. In one drawing, he portrays himself standing at the door of a trailer he purchased to use as a studio with the proceeds from his first art sales. Another shows the outbuildings around his home with cutaway views of the exhibitions he often organized within them. Most of these images were created after 1931, when his family moved to the outskirts of Boise, yet it was the landscape of his youth that captivated him. His drawings are populated with barns, fences, coal stoves, and renderings of the School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding, an institution he attended from 1910 to 1915 without ever adopting its methods.
“At once inviting and inscrutable, Castle’s art gives us access to a world navigated without language, though not the key to unlock it,” says Nicholas R. Bell, the senior curator of American craft and decorative art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who curated the exhibition. “Ultimately, grappling with these drawings reveals the limits of our understanding as well as one artist’s extraordinary vision of the ordinary.”