Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Days in the wake

Presumed deaf, the young boy was also said to be mute, illiterate, and mentally challenged. Knowledgeable family members and boyhood friends and neighbors, however, confirm James Castle could vocalize but could not verbalize: he could make sounds but not shape words.

Careful consideration of his drawings and books suggest Castle had a limited writing ability, a skill he apparently was taught at the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind.

For pens he sharpened sticks and twigs. For ink he mixed stove soot and saliva. Paper was scavenged from discarded or found materials (bulk mail, cardboard cartons, cigarette packages, discarded textbooks). To bind his books the artist borrowed or found thread, twine, string or yarn.

While the artist was never encouraged by his immediate family to make art, neither was he discouraged.

Robert Beach, the artist's nephew, recognized his uncle's genius, and brought Castle's work to the attention of art professors in Portland, Oregon in the 1950s. Their response was uniformly positive and for the next decade Castle enjoyed limited regional success in exhibitions in Washington, Oregon, California, and finally Idaho.

Family delight with Castle's initial success, however, soon soured. The family grew to distrust art dealers and curators who disassembled works or failed to return unsold works. Reputable dealers found the family unfamiliar with standard commercial practices: works for sale could not be thumb-tacked or taped to walls, nor trimmed to fit standard frames.

By the 1970s, Castle was ill and ailing and the family would have little to do with the Art world. After his death, the artist was largely forgotten, and his unsold works languished in less than archival conditions.

Castle's rebirth or rediscovery might be said to have begun in 1994 with the exhibition of over 50 of his books at the dedication exhibition of the Idaho Center for the Book (ICB) in Boise. Today, the artist's reputation has been established globally.

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