Postmortem props 

The enduring mysteries of James Castle

There’s a certain mystery that surrounds artists who receive their fame postmortem. With a dearth of current information, or for that matter contemporary criticism, a deceased artist can often become almost a fictional character, a whole made of memories, journal entries and found work, and recast as a hidden hero. His life becomes framed as that much more of a struggle, his inspirations that much more romanticized, his failures that much more catastrophic. Once an artist’s reputation is exhumed along with his long-lost, long-underappreciated work, the story of his life and work is set in grand, nearly cinematic scope.

James Castle seems sent from central casting for such treatment. The Idaho artist, who died in 1977, was youthfully better known in his hometown of Garden Valley as “Crazy Jimmy” or “Dummy,” rather than as a burgeoning artist who happened to be born deaf and unable to verbalize, and who suffered, most now believe, from autism. His struggles were many: in addition to his physical challenges, Castle was, by virtue of a directive from a specialty school that dubbed him “uneducable,” forbidden to use paper or pencils; the majority of his drawings are done in stove soot and spit on discarded mail from the post office his parents operated. His inspirations are believed to be entirely biographical, but shrouded in a code that’s only recently been revealed; the signature symbol he uses at the start of every handmade book, for instance, is a variation of his family’s cattle brand. His failures are an easy mark: beyond being virtually undiscovered on any artistic level, save for a brief stint as a favorite of some Portland art professors in the late 1960s, Castle was dismissed as a freak or outsider by most—a sad commentary on more than just art criticism. But now that his work is resurfacing almost 30 years since his death (some 20,000 pieces have been discovered, most by dumb luck) and collectors are starting to take notice (his work is part of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, not to mention featured in an exhibit being unveiled Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Missoula Art Museum), Castle’s story is becoming one of legend.

“He is an artist who, for instance, has 300 drawings of the interior of his bedroom,” says Boise State University English professor, book art specialist and Castle biographer Tom Trusky. “But every single one is from a different point of view. When I look at his books, I always know I am the stupid one. His work, these books and what he did, they haunt me. ”

Trusky, who is guest curator of the upcoming MAM exhibit, has a giddy appreciation for and encyclopedic knowledge of Castle. Through interviews with family, classmates and collectors, Trusky has pieced together as many aspects of Castle’s life and work as possible. The main part of Trusky’s research has been finding, restoring and deciphering some of the hundreds of crudely bound books that Castle created from childhood on.

“I remember my initial thought was, ‘What is an illiterate person doing making books?” says Tresky. “But he is communicating so much through these works. It took me some time, but I realized you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know he’s giving us a biography of his life.”

The MAM exhibit includes many examples of Castle’s books, which are fascinating just as much for their construction as for the compositions they contain. Due to his limited resources, Castle used just about anything he could find as paper. One book’s cover is a box of Prince Albert tobacco, another a Safeway brand coffee bag. His illustrations appear on everything from used envelopes to magazine articles; one is smack dab in the middle of an essay titled “Crime and Punishment.” And most are bound using colored yarn in a butterfly or stab stitch.

The drawings themselves vary: some are meticulous landscapes that show advanced command of perspective and shading for someone who was entirely self-taught, others are rough sketches of people, almost like cartoons (think “Futurama” without the robots), with certain features like eyes and ears missing. Trusky offers up theories on why someone who also demonstrated the ability to mimic da Vinci and Picasso would stoop to such caricatures, but prefaces each comment with, “Now, this is just my take on it, but…”

And that’s the key. In figuring out Castle’s work, the fun part is knowing that there’s not necessarily a wrong answer. Even his biographer acknowledges that with Castle, as with any dead artist, the story can continue to grow with each new theory.

“I have to say that more than anything,” says Trusky, “I love the mystery of it all.”

James Castle: From Ice House Unto Early Attic debuts at the Missoula Art Museum Thursday, Nov. 16. Tom Trusky will discuss Castle’s work during Artini Thursday festivities at 8 PM. The exhibit will be on display through Wednesday, Jan. 10.

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