Book Review: James Castle: A Retrospective edited by Ann Perry

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James Castle: A Retrospective. Edited by Ann Perry. Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 2008. ISBN 978-0-300-13730-9

A few months ago, I came across a documentary featuring the work of James Castle. The artist, himself, has a fascinating history. He grew up in rural Idaho and was profoundly deaf from birth. His family supported him and, as he matured, indulged his interest in art. From all appearances, James was voracious in his desire to explore the art world around him. He developed a method of drawing using soot and spit, and also devised ways to add color and dimension to his work using household materials: magazines, newspaper, journals, crepe paper, tissue paper, ice cream cartons, various kinds of cardboard, and even his nieces' and nephews' homework papers. He was a self-taught artist with completely mastery of his themes, techniques and materials. I wanted to learn more.

Left: Duck by James Castle; Right: Gray goose, Stork, and Bird constructions in shed by James Castle. Also news clipping of goose on Capitol Boulevard, Boise, Idaho found among Castle's ephemera.

Left: Duck by James Castle; Right: Gray goose, Stork, and Bird constructions in shed by James Castle. Also news clipping of goose on Capitol Boulevard, Boise, Idaho found among Castle's ephemera.

James Castle: A Retrospective is an in-depth look at his life and work. The book starts with Acknowledgements and Notes to the Reader that immediately clue the reader into the complexities of putting just such a retrospective together. Much of what is known about James is through word of mouth and, only recently, scientific examination of his drawings, collages, and book work. Although James attended a school for the deaf (estimated for about 5 years), he never developed functional spoken or written language skills, though he did develop his own system of communicating with his family. With no spoken or written documentation from the artist himself, historians can only guess at certain aspects of his life and work. I think they do a good job in warning about speculating about Castle's physical abilities (or disabilities) and his motivation for choosing the materials and subjects he did.

Left: Living room with chairs and stove; and Shed interior with chairs, table, and art on walls by James Castle; Right: Empty shed (?) interior 1, 2, and 3 by James Castle

Left: Living room with chairs and stove; and Shed interior with chairs, table, and art on walls by James Castle; Right: Empty shed (?) interior 1, 2, and 3 by James Castle

The book is divided into five essays and one interview: Unfolding the Familiar: James Castle Reintroduced by Ann Percy (which includes an in-depth description of Castle's home-life, some thoughts about how the retrospective came to be, and an overview of themes in his art), Feather in the Door Jamb: The Practice of a Curious Mind by Jacqueline Crist (a selection of family stories and observations about Castle's artistic process); "Tying Things Together": An Interview with Terry Winters by Jeffrey Wolf (an informal analysis of Castle's work from an artist's perspective); "Characters More Comely to the Eye" Text and Intention in the Art of James Castle by Brendan Greaves (an exploration into what language might have meant to Castle as represented by text included in his artwork); A Creative Obsession: Observations on James Castle's Materials and Techniques by Nancy Ash and Scott Homolka (descriptions the tools and materials Castle used in making his artwork); and Handmade: A Scientific Study of James Castle's Art by Beth Anne Price, Ken Sutherland, Daniel Kirby, and Maarten Van Bommel (a synopsis of the first systematic scientific examination of his works, which dispels some of the misconceptions that have developed around the materials he used).

Soot and spit drawings/panorama of a farm by James Castle

Soot and spit drawings/panorama of a farm by James Castle

The book is densely populated both by text and pictures of Castle's work. To the more casual reader, don't let the text turn you off to this artist's work. For me, the soot and spit drawings, as well as the collage work, hold some fascination that is almost beyond words in capturing mood, time and place. Terry Winters, in his interview, likens Castle's work to Mississippi Delta Blues music, and I think he is absolutely spot on. Some of Castle's depictions of buildings and landscapes are painfully isolated, yet grounded and beautifully rendered in their simplicity.

The essays are thought-provoking and give insight not just into the artist's life and work (the scientific examination of Castle's drawings?--so cool!), but in how carefully the planners of Castle's retrospective searched historical documents, interviewed family and friends, and sorted and labeled the vast amount of work he left behind. I'd recommend this for lovers of art history as well as fans of James Castle.

If you read this book, please let me know what you think!

Cheers!--Janyce