Outliers: James Castle of Idaho

Outlier Artist James Castle (1899-1977)

When I look at the recent history of art in, say, the last hundred years, I see a host of reputations I would like to see toppled. Enough of the Mondrians, the de Koonings, the Pollockses, the Rothkos, and their ilk! That’s why I am interested in exploring the outliers, who explored the boundaries of art without trapping themselves in some movemen such as abstract expressionism.

Today, I look at James Charles Castle of Garden Valley, Idaho. According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Castle was a self-taught artist who created drawings, assemblage and books throughout his lifetime. Castle was born profoundly deaf and for at least some time attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, Idaho, but it is not known to what extent he could read, write, or use sign language. Castle’s artworks were created almost exclusively with found materials such as papers salvaged from common packaging and mail, in addition to food containers of all types. Castle mixed ink using soot from the woodstove and saliva and applied it with tools of his own making, including sharpened sticks, and other found objects. His drawings sensitively depict interiors, buildings, animals, landscapes and people based on his family’s rural Garden Valley homestead as well as the architecture and landscapes of the places he lived and visited.


Like many of Castle’s works, the above obviously used a folded sheet of paper that had come his way with a tear toward the lower right corner. Created as it is of spit, soot, and found paper, it beautifully balances shapes and tones.


Even when his own work approaches the abstract, Castle manages to make the viewer stop and think. What is this? A tree, a person, a skyscraper, a computer printer—all drawn at the same scale? And what of those geometric designs in the lower right corner? And the picture is in the form, basically, of a horizontal landscape.