The house of the late James Castle has harbored some secrets that have come to light only recently, four decades after his death. While restoring the old residence in Boise, city officials found 11 never-before-seen artworks by the renowned, self-taught artist, hidden in the walls. Folded and placed between two wall boards — along with two books and a motley gathering of socks, drawing tools, tobacco bags, and one marble — the drawings were made with Castle’s signature materials of soot and spit.
The unexpected find occurred last December, towards the end of the city’s nearly three-year long effort to preserve the quarter-acre property and reopen it as a cultural center dedicated to Castle. Finally refurbished, the James Castle House will open to the public, free of charge, this Saturday, April 28.
“Castle was known for storing works in spaces he lived in,” Rachel Reichert, the cultural sites manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History, told Hyperallergic. “He bundled up piles of works and packaged works in boxes. We didn’t necessarily rule out [finding more art] as an option but, by all means, we were excited.”
The house has previously yielded a similar trove: in 2010, its previous owner, Jeannie Schmidt, who had lived there since 1997, found around 150 artworks by Castle in the ceiling. The discovery led to a dispute over the works’s rightful owner, which a judge ruled was the Castle family.
Reichert, along with two other members of her department and architect Byron Folwell, were tasked with restoring the house to its appearance under the care of the Castles, who moved in in 1931. Castle, who actually lived in a shed, then trailer, on the property, remained until his death in 1977. In 2015, the city of Boise purchased the house from Schmidt, and began conducting research to understand the building’s history. (Plans to conserve the shed and trailer, which also served as Castle’s studios, are underway.)
“So much alteration work had been done,” Reichert said. “Our goal was to remove the more modern materials, and we would spend days peeling back layers of wallpaper. In the process we would find building materials that were reflective of previous decades.”
While removing sheetrock to reveal the house’s innards, the team found the long-hidden artworks, piled on top of each other in a crevice. Reichert believes they date between the 1930s and 1950s, adding that the task of dating Castle’s work is challenging. The artist often used found paper, and although some of these recycled packagings can be dated, he would often save pieces for a while before working with them.
The imagery of the long-hidden drawings vary. One picture depicts a snowman; another, a detailed exterior of the house itself. The residence was one of Castle’s favorite subjects, and his many renderings were vital resources for the restoration team, providing views of different rooms and angles of the original Castle home. Now, its exterior appears just as the original Castle family house did in the ’30s, while its interior maintains as much original material as possible, from the hardwood floors to window and door fixtures. There are some updates, including two additional spaces to accommodate exhibition programming and an artist residency.
When the house reopens this weekend, the found drawings will be on view in its inaugural exhibition, along with 50 other works by Castle. All have been donated to the city by the James Castle Collection and Archive, as a gift for the complex restoration job.
“It’s really exciting to be able to save and promote this space that belonged to Castle and tell the story of the property,” Reichert said. “Bringing artists into this house to create new works also breathes new life into this house, and is an opportunity to further the Castle legacy.”