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Verbalizing Art in a Deaf World: The Minneapolis Institute of Art Features Works by James Castle

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) has assembled an exhibition comprising forty-four works by the late self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977), titled The Experience of Every Day (from May 21st – August 21st 2016). The exhibition includes twenty-five drawings (ten that are double-sided), thirteen three-dimensional constructions, five hand-made books, and one collage. The collection of works, which come from private collections and the museum’s permanent collection, “explore Castle’s extensive, ingenious and engagingly improvisational body of work, and serves as a visual chronicle of his daily experiences, dreams, memories and fantasies,” says Dennis Michael Jon, who curated the show.

James Castle

“Untitled (Homes / House),” Soot, Soot Wash, Black Wax Crayon, and Red Wash on Tan Found Cardboard (Unknown Source), 12″ x 18″. Private collection, Minneapolis.

Castle was born profoundly deaf in a sparsely-populated farmstead northeast of Boise, Idaho. He never learned to proficiently read, write, speak, sign, or lip-read. As the fifth of seven children of farmers, he was lucky to attend the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind from 1910 to 1915, but his studies were not strictly enforced at home. To communicate, Castle relied on what the biographer Tom Trusky calls ‘homespeak’ – a combination of gestures, improvised signs and vocal utterances. Due to such barriers, the artist learned to verbalize his observations of the world through works of art that he produced with highly inventive methods and scavenged materials such as cardboard, paper, string, ribbon, advertising clippings, food labels, printed texts, and other mediums.

James Castle Porch

“Untitled (Porch with open screen door),”
Soot and Soot Wash on Tan Found Cardboard, Double-sided Drawing (Side A), 4.5″ x 5.75″. Private collection, Minneapolis.

The bulk of Castle’s work comprises drawings that depict the landscapes, the animals, and the people that were familiar to him within the scope of his largely-isolated life. For over seven decades, beginning from the age of six- or seven-years-old and ending with a portrait that he created in the hospital room on the day that he died, Castle created drawings that immortalized both the transient and poignant elements of his day-to-day. His signature drawing method was produced by combining soot from a wood-burning stove in his home with water and his own saliva, which created a dark ink paste that he applied with sticks or matches. A double-sided work with inscribed notes on the verso, originally untitled and officially titled “Untitled (Porch with open screen door),” shows this technique executed on a flattened cardboard box. While some works occasionally employed commercial mediums, such as the work titled “Untitled (Interior with figure and seven ‘friend’ constructions)” shows the same technique done on ruled notebook paper.

James Castle Gray Bird

“Untitled (Gray bird),” Torn and Cut Paper and Cardboard; Sewn and Tied with White Cotton String; Soot, Soot Wash, Gray Wash, and Traces of Red Pigment, 7.9″ x 11″ x 1″. Private collection, Minneapolis.

In addition to drawings, Castle also created complex constructions with combinations of found paper, cardboard, wood, cloth, string, soot, and color pigments. Most of the constructions depict humans, clothes, household objects, farm implements, architectural elements, and wild and domestic animals. The work “Untitled (Gray bird),” which was created from torn and cut paper and cardboard that are sewn and tied with string, show Castle’s favorite and most familiar animal subject – the bird. This work is finished with a gray pigment with traces of red pigments, and it is colored with the classic soot and soot wash. Like his drawings and all the works in the exhibition, none of the thirteen constructions included are dated, which makes it more challenging for art historians and curators to trace any stylistic or thematic developments.

While his five-year stint at school did not propel his language skills, Castle’s work often shows ‘letter forms’ that are undecipherable but that demonstrate the vivid impression of those memories. These letter forms – devised from English or comprised of wavy-line substitutes for printed text – are accompanied by portraits and figures, narrative scenes, calendars, numbers codes, pictographs, collaged comic strips and hand-copied images from newspapers. The five hand-made books presented in the show are bound with strings of cotton or ribbon and were executed on found paper. The books attempt to emulate traditional publications, and works like the “Sugar Honey Maid Graham Crackers book”, for example, feature eight pages of portrait busts that are followed by narrative scenes and calendars, the latter being something that Castle was fascinated by and reproduced nonsensically.

"Untitled (Sugar Honey Maid Graham Crackers Book)," Soot and Soot Wash Drawings on Found Beige Paper, in Covers Fashioned from Thin Gray Cardboard Faced with Beige Paper, 16 pages, 79 illustrations,<br />9" x 7.4" x .1". Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Mary and Robyn Campbell Fund for Art Books and the David and Margaret Christenson Endowment for Art Acquisition.

“Untitled (Sugar Honey Maid Graham Crackers Book),” Soot and Soot Wash Drawings on Found Beige Paper, in Covers Fashioned from Thin Gray Cardboard Faced with Beige Paper, 16 pages, 79 illustrations,
9″ x 7.4″ x .1″. Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Mary and Robyn Campbell Fund for Art Books and the David and Margaret Christenson Endowment for Art Acquisition.


James Castle

Back Cover of “Untitled (Sugar Honey Maid Graham Crackers Book)”


James Castle

Interior Page of “Untitled (Sugar Honey Maid Graham Crackers Book)”

Castle was largely unacknowledged until he was fifty-two-years-old, when the Museum Art School of the Portland Art Association, now the Pacific Northwest College of Art, organized a show of his work in 1951 at the suggestion of Castle’s nephew, who was a student at the school and discovered the work while on a family visit. While several other exhibitions followed, including solo shows, Castle’s family blocked public access to the collection for twenty-years after his death in 1977, which drew the work into obscurity once again until it resurfaced in the mid-1990s, when it gained widespread recognition and representation.

Castle is currently represented by three US galleries (the Peter Freeman gallery in New York, the Lawrence Markey Gallery in San Antonio, Texas, and the Tayloe Piggott Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming), as well as the Frith Street Gallery in London, England, and the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. Castle’s work is housed in the permanent collections of several American institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.

James Castle: The Experience of Every Day (May 21st – August 21st 2016) at The Minneapolis Institute of Art.