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James Castle: A Retrospective

October 14, 2008–January 4, 2009

James Castle: A Retrospective marks the first comprehensive museum exhibition of the work of James Castle (1899–1977), an artist from rural Idaho who, despite undergoing no formal or conventional training, is especially admired for the unique homemade quality, graphic skill, and visual and conceptual range that characterize his works. By all accounts deaf since birth, and presumably never having learned much language, Castle turned his obsessive and constant production of drawn images into his primary mode of communication with what must often have seemed the strange and baffling world around him. The exhibition consists of some 300 drawings, color wash pieces, handmade books, assemblages, and text works selected from museums and private collections, including many from the holdings in Castle's estate.


James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, a documentary video created by writer-director Jeffery Wolf and produced by Philadelphia's Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists, is being shown continuously in the exhibition during the hours it is open to the public to enhance the viewer's understanding of Castle's life, home surroundings, and art.

The Art of James Castle

Most of Castle's imagery is rooted in his rural surroundings, especially in the interiors and exteriors of the various structures on the three small farms in southwest-central Idaho that his family occupied successively during his lifetime. Over and over again, Castle drew the living rooms, bedrooms, barns, sheds, chicken houses, and other buildings that were his familiar milieu, often combining elements of different locales from memory and introducing surprising juxtapositions of odd, imaginative forms. Because he used found papers, not commercially produced ones, and primarily homemade rather than professional artists' materials, Castle's works have a singular, immediate, and natural quality. His most numerous drawings, largely of farmscapes and room interiors, are done in a medium he invented by combining soot from wood-burning stoves with water or saliva, applied to pieces of discarded paper or cardboard with small hand sharpened sticks and wads of paper or fabric. His constructions are whimsical, complex layerings of cut and shaped pieces of paper or cardboard representing the things that especially appealed to him, such as farm animals, furniture, clothes, household objects, and architectural elements. His colored pulp drawings usually depict simplified, front-facing figures or little houses and often blur off into quasi total abstractions as Castle worked his dissolved pigments into selectively roughened paper surfaces. Among the most evocative of his creations are his "word pieces," in which words or phrases are drawn with soot or cut out and collaged onto pieces of found paper. These are all the more poignant when one realizes that the artist was born into silence, did not speak, read (to any large degree), or write, and may well have had little or no comprehension of the words' meanings. Castle explored a wide range of visual and conceptual modes, approaches, or strategies in his art, a circumstance unusual in the work of the self-taught. In solving the artistic problems he set himself he adopted a surprising number of styles or devices used by various "mainstream" artists throughout the twentieth century, of which he was presumably unaware as he had almost no first-hand experience of the professional art world. These practices include surrealism (or supra-realism), abstraction, collage, appropriation, grid or serial arrangement of images, and the use of text or language as the subject of art.

Curriculum Connections

James Castle's artwork can connect to your classroom curriculum in a variety of ways. Use some of the suggestions below before or after visiting the Museum's exhibition. A James Castle teaching poster is also available to K–12 educators; contact the Education Department at (215) 685-7580 or to receive one.

In Castle's images of interior rooms he uses an artistic technique called linear perspective, creating the illusion of three dimensions (height, width, and depth) on a flat surface (two dimensions). Linear perspective is based on math but can be created using only a pencil and a straight edge. This website by artist and educator Harold Olejarz will teach you how to create the illusion of three-dimensions in drawing:

Castle's art was his way of expressing his thoughts and ideas to the world. Try communicating through art, too, using only lines. With a partner, share one pencil and one piece of paper. Taking turns, start a silent conversation on the piece of paper, expressing yourself by drawing lines (thick, thin, heavy, light, curvy, sharp, etc.). What is this line conversation saying? Did you have a disagreement? Did you tell secrets? Did you express your feelings? Science
The material Castle used in his black-and-white drawings was a combination of his own saliva and soot (a black substance deposited in wood-burning stoves); saliva is thicker than water and helps the soot stick to the paper better. For his colored wash drawings, he probably soaked bits of colored paper in water and then rubbed the wet paper onto the surface of his drawing to transfer the color. What other kinds of materials could be used to make colors? Experiment with one or two to see which one works best.

Art, Art History, Cultural Studies, and Research
Castle made his own books and sometimes changed books into art by drawing or collaging in them. Bookmaking has been an art for centuries, and today, most books are made of paper. Conduct your own research to find at least three different kinds of materials that books have been made of in different countries around the world. Which of these materials would you use to make a book of your own? (Think about the sturdiness of the material, the cost, etc.)

Language Arts
People who are deaf often use sign language to communicate. With his family, Castle invented his own signs to express himself. In your class, make up some signs for activities you do everyday at school, like reading, eating lunch, listening, etc. Then, go to the website ASL University, by William G. Vicars, Ed.D., to discover what the standard in American Sign Language is:

Main Building


This exhibition is made possible by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Additional funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius; and by the Henry Luce Foundation, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, the Ervika Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, and other generous individuals.


Ann Percy • Curator of Drawings

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