The Drawings of James Castle

Drawing (Winter 1998-99): 47-49.


When used in tandem with “artist,” the term “self-taught” can imply many things. Ideally, it is a value-neutral phrase, bespeaking a lack of traditional training. Like dyslexic readers who cleverly circumnavigate the roadblocks imposed by their condition, self-taught artists are obliged to become inventors, devising their own materials and techniques to give form to the images they envision. While all good artists are inventive as they struggle to solve the aesthetic problems posed by each new work of art, every once in a while one encounters an artist who is both ingenious and original. A case in point is the self-taught American artist James Castle (1899-1977), little known east of the Rockies, whose large oeuvre of drawings and constructions directly addresses artistic invention, in both senses of the term. Castle’s work exemplifies the triumph of human ingenuity, compelling us to ponder the origins of art—the moment when intelligent but unlettered individuals first created a visual language that attempted to reflect and give order to their world. As an artist who had no access to training, Castle did not reinvent the wheel, but rather created an alternative means of transportation.

James Castle was born in the small mountain town of Garden Valley, Idaho. The fifth of eight children of Mary Nora Scanlon Castle and Francis James Castle, James arrived two months premature, and was born profoundly deaf. His older sister, Nellie was also deaf, although she has lost her hearing after a childhood illness. Unlike Nellie, who could read, write and fingersign, James, intelligent but other-directed, firmly rejected all such conventional modes of communication. According to family members, the Castles developed “Homesign,” a rudimentary system of hand gestures to convey basic concepts. It was not until the artist reached his fifties, in fact, when someone taught him to draw the words “James Castle” on his art work, that he was actually able to sign his name.

Castle grew up in an isolated community about thirty miles north of Boise. His parents operated the local post office and general store, their home functioning as “a rustic social center.”[i] His mother was a midwife who traveled by horseback to her clients. As a child, Castle was large for his age, although he grew to be only five feet tall as an adult. Good-natured, but unable to speak or read, “Dummy,” as some of the town’s children tauntingly dubbed him, was so often the object of cruel pranks that his family kept him out of public school for his own protection. At the age of twelve, he spent one year at the State School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding, Idaho, but was so desperately unhappy there that the Castles brought him home and gave up on any further formal education. His lived with his parents until their deaths in the 1940s, and spent the remainder of his life with his niece Peggy and her family. James Castle died in Boise in 1977.

Drawing was a major means of expression of Castle, whose passion for making art was manifest from early childhood. With free access to US Post Office forms that abounded at home, he developed a taste for “found ground” and press into service such disparate drawing supports as ruled homework pages, sheet music, family letters, matchboxes, bulk mail circulars, State of Idaho income tax forms, business reply envelopes, and cigarette packages. For visual stimulation, he perused and sometimes cannibalized such publications as almanacs, catalogues, and periodicals. Illustrated liturgical calendars displayed in his Catholic household also provided inspiration. Often, he drew on both sides of a sheet of paper.

As for drawing implements, the artist preferred to fashion his own, sharpening pine twigs and carving sticks to make pens and pencils. On palettes of mason jar lids, he concocted his own pigments from stove soot and saliva. He created wash drawings by manipulating his homemade inks, working them into the surface of the paper with sharpened match sticks. Later in his career, he expanded his repertoire of subtle grisaille renderings by exploring colored images. These he created by “deconstructing” colored crepe and construction papers, thinning the resulting pulp with water until it was spreadable. Although his supportive family made available more conventional art materials, he consistently declined them in favor of his own.

An acute observer of the world around him, Castle never drew from life, opting to rely on his memory, his mind’s eye like a camera with its shutter permanently open. One characteristic testament to his powers of observation is a highly original drawing containing two views he would have seen from the attic of his house. On one side he rendered a scene of the yard and the out buildings of the family farm, that is, what he would see when he looked out from the attic window. On the verso, he depicted a panorama of the attic interior, as if he had pivoted his position to place his back to the window.

Castle arranged the drawings that he particularly liked on the walls of his workroom, effectively creating his own gallery. Many of his works still retain the paper hanging devices he fashioned for this purpose. In some compositions, the artist evidenced a very modern sensitivity to the reality of art and issues of display. Like Matisse, who sometimes included images of his earlier works in subsequent paintings, Castle made drawings of the drawings installed in his quarters.

Castle’s creative output also included constructions made from found cardboard and colored pulps and stitched together with string. Occasionally they took the form of animals. One powerful example is a low-relief standing bird whose masterful wings are given dimension with feathered stacks of cardboard, one on each side of the construction. Like a duck decoy, the figure radiates an iconic stillness.

Castle also fashioned unpeopled garments, with axial rows of square, cut-out buttons. These shirts and coats are presented as “packaged” rectangles, with arms folded out of sight, the way they might have been shelved at his family’s store.

Most touching of all are Castle’s fabrications of imaginary companions, many of which are life-size. According to accounts, the five-foot-tall artist would sometimes stroll through his small town, “his arm around the waist of one of his life-size friends he has made of cardboard.”[ii] He installed these figures in his bedroom, as if to people his solitude with their comforting presence, and made numerous drawings of them in situ.

Images of people abound in Castle’s drawings, usually presented frontally and full-length or as bust portraits. Although a few are portraits of family members, the majority have the generalized presence of icons. In many examples, the artist omitted some or all facial features, while in others he geometricized the mouth or rendered the eyes as one circle. Deeply moving in effect, Castle’s humans look as if they are wearing medieval helmets or cutout paper sacks over their heads. The smaller-scaled men and women resonate with visual associations. More than anything else these works recall the stately poses common to postage stamps, which were tantamount to this artist’s baby blocks, and the stiff postures in Victorian photo albums, one of which was his sister Nellie’s treasured possession.

Castle has a special feeling for rectilinear patterns, favoring herringbone and crisscross designs for both figure and ground. In one small book, typical of the many he created by stitching various found papers together, he placed one drawing on each page, floating a single figure against varying geometric backgrounds. Stripes or bars are also frequently patterned into environmental motifs. It is possible to see in these images a poignant metaphor of the barriers that came between castle and the hearing world. The disquiet of silence emanates from his diverse drawings, books and constructions, the profound stillness inherent in Castle’s vision of the world. Yet his ability to communicate his solitude and isolation was extraordinary. James Castle created a powerful and evocative body of work which delineates the concrete boundaries of his physical world and, at the same time, explores the extended realms of his imagination.

[i] Tom Trusky, “James Castle and the Burden of Art,” Raw Vision, 23 (Summer 1998), p.42.

[ii] Ibid., p.44


Judith Stein, “The Drawings of James Castle.” Drawing (Winter 1998-99): 47-49.

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