James Castle, an Isolated Idahoan Often Called ‘Insane’ – and Highly Talented Artist/Bookmaker

Outsider Artist – James Castle

Born in Garden Valley, Idaho in 1899 just nine years after the rural frontier territory was admitted to the Union, James Castle was born deaf, never learning to read, write, or sign but choosing to communicate through his artwork instead. Later determined to be autistic by contemporary medical specialists, Castle spent a significant portion of his life creating art in a desolate chicken house and an icehouse.

James Castle (1900-1977), working his soot and spit drawings at his home in Garden Valley, Idaho. Photo: Magnolia Atlas.
James Castle (1900-1977), working his soot and spit drawings at his home in Garden Valley, Idaho. Photo: Magnolia Atlas.

James Charles Castle spent his entire life isolated in his family’s home and businesses, other than a six-month period of time spent in the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind; he was expelled from the school. Sadly, Castle was ridiculed and taunted by others. In fact, relatives would destroy his drawings, often created from items he found including scraps of cardboard and milk containers. It is believed Castle’s parents’ positions as postmasters provided much of the supplies he used to create collages, text and abstract drawings, and color meditations. Perhaps most intriguing of all, Castle would render rustic and pastoral architecture and terrain using soot mixed with saliva, which he would put on the end of a sharpened stick to render works of art much like what results with ink or graphite.

Most of Castle’s artwork was fairly unknown until after his death, although his artistic talents did garner local acclaim at the Boise Gallery of Art in exhibitions in 1963 and 1976, just one year prior to his death. International recognition came later, in fact decades after Castle’s death; in 2011 the first international retrospective of his work was held at the Museo Reina Sofia.

Tom Trusky, who was Director of the Hemingway Western Studies Center and a professor at Boise State University, is credited for bringing Castle’s artwork outside of the confined spaces the artist lived in. Moving to Boise in 1970, Trusky became familiar with Castle’s artwork after hearing of it from acquaintances who knew mostly not of Castle’s amazing talent, but of his reputation as a strange man with inexplicable artistic idiosyncrasies. While an English professor at Boise State, Trusky authored a biography of Castle. Trusky wrote in the biography that James Castle was “obsessed with making art from an early age,” and that he had been “incorrectly declared retarded, even insane.” After much study of Castle’s life, ability, and talent, and analyzation of the artist’s life by members of the medical community, Trusky said he was convinced that Castle was not insane at all, but that he was a classic example of a gifted autistic.

Today, this truly talented outsider artist’s work is exhibited across the U.S. at museums including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, and the American Folk Art Museum.

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FiveDolls

James Castle Large Newspaper Book of Drawings c. 1950 burned carbon soot on newspaper 17" x 11.5"
James Castle Large Newspaper Book of Drawings c. 1950 burned carbon soot on newspaper 17″ x 11.5″

Learn more about this inspiring Outsider Artist in the book, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist

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