An artist of humble beginnings and humble materials, James Castles’s exceptional life resulted in the creation of exceptional art. Friends and relatives remember James already drawing pictures by age six or seven. Making do with materials scrounged from around his parent’s Garden Valley farm, store, and post office, he drew what he saw—capturing people, animals, landscapes, and intricately shaded architectural images on scraps of wrapping paper, discarded envelopes, and the backsides of old receipts. His drawing instruments were most often sharpened sticks or nails dipped repeatedly into his own special “spit and soot” ink mixture. With these, James managed to produce a diverse, very personal, yet highly sophisticated body of work.
RECOGNITION AS AN ARTIST: In 1950, while attending what would later become the Pacific Academy of Art in Portland, Oregon, Castle's nephew Robert Beach showed James’ work to a member of the Academy’s faculty. As a result, James’ work was passed along to a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts colleague who was equally impressed. From these chance beginnings and with on-going encouragement from nephew Robert came slow but steady recognition of Castle’s artistic talents and growing interest in the exhibition of his work.
James’ first 1951 Portland show was small but enthusiastically received, followed by regional shows in Washington State, Oregon, and California. Appreciation of Castle’s work continued to grow, leading to a comprehensive exhibition at the Boise Gallery of Art (now the Boise Art Museum) in 1963 and other exhibits throughout the decade. In 1974 two Castle calendar drawings were included in the seminal book “Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists” by Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. and Julia Wiseman.
The final exhibition James Castle attended during his lifetime was held at Boise Gallery of Art in 1976. James Castle passed away the following year on October 26, 1977.
Since his death, Castle’s artwork has received worldwide acclaim and has been featured in exhibitions in many countries and foreign cities including London, Tokyo, and Paris. Recent U.S. venues include the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014 and the Smithsonian American Art Gallery in 2015.
Today The James Castle Collection and Archive located in Boise, Idaho works to cultivate and preserve Castle’s artistic legacy. According to the archive, galleries currently handling Castle’s art include Peter Freeman, Inc. New York City; the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, Japan; the Lawrence Markey Gallery, San Antonio, TX; and the Ayloe Piggotti Gallery, Jackson Hole, WY
In 2015 the City of Boise’s Department of Arts and History purchased James Castle’s final home in Pierce Park. The newly restored site preserves and honors Idaho’s most famous artist. Visitors can explore James Castle's art and life on tours of the house and view art exhibitions. The city also hosts a residency program at James Castle House offering "artists, curators, writers, performers, and other creative individuals an opportunity to live and work."
Charles James Castle (1899-1977), who would be known throughout his life as James, was born in Garden Valley, Idaho on September 25, 1899. His parents were British emigrant Frank Castle, and Mary Scanlon Castle, a native of nearby Pioneerville, Idaho.
Born prematurely, possibly due to a barn fire his mother reportedly helped extinguish shortly before his birth, James came into the world small, sickly, and as his parents would soon realize, profoundly deaf.
The fifth of seven surviving Castle children, James grew up with one older brother and five sisters. Two other siblings died in infancy, and older sister Nellie became deaf at age eight after contracting measles.
Like other Garden Valley farming families, the Castles were industrious. They raised livestock and feed crops, and tended a large garden with surplus marketed to their neighbors. For many years Mary also served as the valley’s principal midwife.
After being appointed Postmaster in1901, Frank enlarged the family home to accommodate not only the post office, but a small general store where Frank and Mary sold sugar, salt, and other staples. As a result the Castle home was little James’ first “window on the world”—a safe place from which to observe and imagine, but with no need to participate directly.
James did not attend public school with his siblings. Within the family, his communication skills were limited though adequate. But outside the home, and particularly in the classroom where accommodations for the hearing impaired were still decades into the future, James’ profound deafness and limited ability to communicate made formal learning very difficult. Still, around 1910, the family sent James and his sister Nellie to the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind. Nellie, whose hearing had been lost at age eight, did very well. But James’ deafness from birth limited both his opportunities and enthusiasm. There is also speculation that James, who could be very strong-willed, may have preferred spending time on art projects rather than the school’s more structured curriculum. Whatever the reasons, James returned home after five years at Gooding having never learned to read, write, lip-read, or sign. He did manage to master copying letters of the alphabet, which he enjoyed incorporating into his increasingly elaborate drawings.
Back home, feeling his hearing and limited communication skills were burden enough, the family chose to excuse James from farm chores and household duties. This left James free to spend time alone observing his surroundings. And using this time more wisely than anyone might have imagined, James slowly transformed himself into a true artist.
In 1923 the Castle family moved from Garden Valley to Star, Idaho. After Frank’s death in 1927 Mary and the family moved again to Middleton, Idaho, and then in 1931 to a rural area outside Boise later known as Pierce Park.
Throughout this period, and on into the later 1930's and '40's, James continued producing art using his unique but familiar materials and tools. Subject matter changed and evolved over time to reflect his new surroundings, but James never forgot Garden Valley, and images from those earlier years continued to influence his work through the end of his life.
By 1930 the family included Mary, James, his sister Peggy, her husband Guy Wade, and eventually their four children. In 1948 after Mary’s death, Peggy inherited the family home with the understanding that James would live there with her family for the rest of his life. Over the years James had drawn pictures of a cottage referred to within the family as James’ “dream house”, his very private way, they believed, of expressing desire for a home of his own. And eventually proceeds from the sale of James’ art enabled him to live in his own real dream house – a small comfortable mobile home purchased on his behalf by his sister and parked next to the family home.
The Garden Valley Art Center is proud to feature James Castle Notecards, tote bags, and several books in our Gift Shop.
The annual James Castle Celebration is on hiatus due to a number of circumstances, including COVID-19. We look forward to bringing the event back in the future.
The 2018 GVCA Annual James Castle Celebration was held Labor Day weekend, September 1-2. In addition to the monthly reception at the gallery, other events included a student art collection, a silent auction and raffle, and a contest to make new Friends - James Castle-inspired art. Many local businesses supported the celebration by sponsoring a Friend at their business.