From soot and spit, a world emerges

James Castle’s remarkable art and life

James Castle constructed this undated gray bird from torn cardboard and paper, cotton string, soot and other found materials.

WHITTIER — At one end of the Minneapolis Institute of Art this summer, you have three galleries filled with a billionaire’s trove of landscape paintings, extravagant postcards from Venice, the Grand Canyon and the gardens at Giverny. It promises bedazzlement, and Monet, Turner, Klimt and the gang deliver.

Step into the alcove-like Cargill Gallery at the other end of old Mia, across the lobby from the museum’s café, and all of that will suddenly seem miles away. The show inside is an anti-spectacle of smudgy drawings, tiny handmade books and scrappy string and cardboard constructions made by a self-taught artist who rarely traveled, who could not communicate in speech or writing and whose reputation, in his lifetime, barely registered beyond his home state of Idaho.

But “James Castle: The Experience of Every Day” is, like the life of the artist himself, subtly extraordinary. With his resourcefulness, relentless productivity and unschooled virtuosity, Castle is as compelling as any of those globetrotting paint slingers down the hall.

With only glancing exposure to the wider world of art, Castle produced work that uncannily paralleled contemporary developments in modernism. And his excursions into geometric abstraction and collage are just two aspects of a lifelong artistic practice grounded in observational drawing.

The fifth of a Garden Valley, Idaho, farm family’s seven children, Castle was profoundly deaf from his birth in 1899. Despite spending his early teen years at the Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind, Castle never learned to sign, read lips or text, speak or write.

But from the age of six or seven, he produced art incessantly. Although much of his early work was lost — simply left behind when the family twice moved homes — thousands of pieces produced before his death in 1977 survive.

Castle is able to transmute the humblest of found materials: flattened boxes and scrap paper become drawing surfaces, soot moistened with spit becomes ink. Those same basic materials, bound with knotted string and twine, are startlingly transformed in Castle’s constructions, like a small gray bird that has become a darling of the Mia exhibition.

Layered scraps of soot-darkened paper evoke the unkempt plumage of a farmyard rooster. The white string doesn’t just bind the construction together; Castle uses it to draw strong diagonal lines across his abstracted design. A cluster of knots on its chest could represent the bird’s downy belly feathers.

“It looks simple,” said Dennis Michael Jon, Mia’s associate curator of prints and drawings and author of the exhibition catalogue. “That’s the thing about his work: It looks offhand, simple, but it’s actually extremely sophisticated. And whimsical, at times.”

Castle made a kind ink by moistening soot with spit and would often draw with sticks, matches or other improvised tools.
Castle made a kind ink by moistening soot with spit and would often draw with sticks, matches or other improvised tools.

In his handmade books, Castle often takes up a theme, like made-up letterforms or tiny portraits, and draws dozens of variations on that theme. He experiments with layout, isolating images in boxes and substituting wavy lines for text, inspired by the graphic design of the magazines and books he couldn’t properly read.

Castle’s drawings of the farm best demonstrate his incredible powers as a draftsman. He taught himself — and mastered — both one- and two-point perspective, and his landscapes in particular have an immersive sense of three-dimensional depth, an illusion heightened by Castle’s habit of taking his drawings all the way to the margins of the paper.

That these observational drawings only rarely include human figures is just one of the enduring mysteries of Castle’s work. His drawings of the farmhouse bedrooms and living spaces are both intimate and almost eerily empty, like walking into a house when family is away at church.

What these drawings meant to Castle is impossible to say since he never commented on his work. It’s tempting to read them as expressions of isolation or loneliness, but Jon said that kind of armchair psychoanalysis is misleading.

One of Castle's handmade books.
One of Castle’s handmade books.

“You can’t extrapolate too much, but from all accounts that I’ve read, he had a great life,” Jon said. “He was rather happy-go-lucky.”

More likely, he suggested, is Castle simply focused on “what he found most interesting, which is architecture.”

Castle’s work was almost unknown outside of his community until the early ’50s, when one of his nephews, an art school student, showed some drawings to an instructor. Castle eventually exhibited his work about a dozen times.

Although Mia has gathered some pieces by Castle over the years, the show is largely assembled from a pledged legacy gift by an anonymous Minneapolis collector. His is one of the largest collections in private hands in the country, Jon said.

When will it land at Mia permanently? Who knows, so don’t wait.


James Castle: The Experience of Every Day

When: Through Aug. 21

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Info:, 870-3000