Monday, May 9, 2011

James Castle: Self-Taught Artist/Bookmaker

When an artist has an intriguing life story we often confuse the artist with the art. Our intimate knowledge of the artist's colorful history may shade our view of the work; we may be charmed by the the creative process rather than what we actually see in front of us. With James Castle fortunately, that is not the case. In addition to having an unusual life history, James Castle created work that compels us to keep looking.

Look at his art first. Castle drew on the backs of matchboxes and food cartons, made figure constructions from feed bags, corrugated cardboard, string, and printed papers, and made hundreds of little books from all of these materials that contained his drawings. He collaged, drew letters and numbers and symbols from different alphabets, and came back to several favorite topics including invented calendars and drawn "photo" albums set up like yearbooks. For one example, he made a little box in a matchbox style from a Cheer detergent box and placed twenty-four drawings and other ephemera inside. Because he was not formally trained in an art school he is often filed in the category of "outsider" artist, but he was so devoted to his art that he effectively taught himself formal concepts like perspective through observation and rigorous practice.He invented his own bindings, his own pictographs, and made representations of various household products like Morton salt and Royal baking powder. He mainly drew scenes of Garden Valley, where he lived, and also of the Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding that he attended for five years. He drew and constructed people, too, possibly himself, his friends and family, or maybe fictive friends. The textures intrigue and delight us. The black and white drawings haunt us. Their mystery makes us curious about the place and about the boy, then man, who made them.

Read his story. James Castle was deaf, born in 1899 in rural Idaho, and either could not or did not choose to learn to read and write, but he drew. Living with a family who ran a General Store/Post Office, he had access to all kinds of paper ephemera as well as stamps and postcards, which were sources of inspiration. He was considered an unruly child (some find evidence that he was also autistic), and "Dummy" or "C.J." or "Crazy Jimmy," as he was called, frequently stayed away from school. His sister Nellie was also hearing impaired and the two of them were sent to a school for the deaf and blind in 1911 so they could learn to read lips and communicate orally. Although he learned to write his name there, Castle did not show that he learned to read or write otherwise. In order to make him focus on oral learning the school took away his art supplies, but James constructed implements from sharpened sticks and made ink  from stove soot and spit. Later in life, when formal art supplies were returned to him, he rejected them. One assumes that since he had spent so much time familiarizing himself with his own tools he had no use for any others. To make "watercolor" paintings, he crumpled up colored crepe and tissue papers and dipped them in water to release the dye, then painted with the little wads. As an adult he spent most of his waking hours making art, and he entertained his nieces and nephews, some of whom wanted to draw like "Uncle Jim." He collected paper ephemera, something he started doing as a child, and sorted it for future use. No one is quite sure what his method for sorting was, and periodically he untied the bundles and resorted and retied them. Hundreds of these bundles, some in burlap sacks and tied with string or strips of denim fabric, were still around after his death in 1977.

I first happened upon work by James Castle by accident in August 2003. A fan of the Berkeley Art Museum, I was wandering around, perhaps visiting another show, when I noticed a small case filled with books. Excitement! What were these? Who was this person? Why hadn't I heard of him before? The books, acquired in 2001, are in the museum's permanent collection. When I went back they were gone. So I started hunting around for more information.

A retrospective of Castle's work appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008-09, accompanied by a catalogue edited by Ann Percy, which also contains a documentary made by Jeffrey Wolf. The show traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum in 2010. At the Berkeley exhibit I brought my CCA class to hear the talk by the chief curator, but was dismayed and bemused when she said she thought that Castle's constructions were a kind of "slippage" between two media. I did not say anything, but I  felt that Castle was thinking like a book artist: the constructions each had a front and they opened to reveal many layers of content. It is already clear that he loved books and magazines so the shaped constructions seemed to me a natural exploration of the book form.

James Castle facsimiles
purchased from ICB
The late Tom Trusky, an Idahoan, English professor, book arts teacher, and member of the book arts community for many years (among other things!), was fascinated with Castle and wrote his own book which was published in 2004. While I like the catalogue for the color pictures, I prefer Trusky's text to the catalogue's art-crit speak. (You can hear Trusky's voice in an unrelated interview from January 12, 2008, or you can go to iTunes and search for "Book Artists and Poets.") Tom Trusky left his collection of a dozen James Castle books to the Albertsons Library Special Collections at Boise State University, stating they should not be sold. For a treat, you may still be able to order the James Castle facsimile books from the Idaho Center for the Book.

I've heard more about James Castle lately, most likely due to the exhibitions. You can find work selling for $2500-$18,000 for a picture or a slice out of one of the books. Ouch. That's the part that disturbs me, changing the art to suit public taste, selling pages rather than books just because you can't hang a book on the wall. But a book was designed as a book by its maker. James Castle, the man, and James Castle, the maker should both be respected so he and we can rest in peace.

1 comment:

Lotus said...

wonderful post! I'm going to have to do some research on James!
Thank you for sharing his story!