Artist

James Castle

born Garden Valley, ID 1899-died Boise, ID 1977
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Photo by Robert Beach, Tom Trusky Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University
Born
Garden Valley, Idaho, United States
Died
Boise, Idaho, United States
Nationalities
  • American
Biography

James Castle lived his whole life in the Boise Basin of Idaho. He was deaf from birth, and despite some schooling, never became fluent in alternative forms of communication such as lipreading, signing, reading, or writing. Castle began drawing as a child and continued to do so his entire life, but the primary body of his surviving work was made between 1931 and his death in 1977.

Castle’s parents both farmed and served as local postmasters; printed English texts inundated the family home and Castle studied them at length. His artworks drew almost equally on the physical landscape of his life and the text-based materials that prompted conversation for others, but remained, for him, impenetrable. Castle made as unique a body of art as any. He also brought the thorny issue of difference to the fore in a very particular way, underscoring the ways in which personal experience and challenge can shape an artistic path.

Castle’s sophisticated and enigmatic imagery didn’t align with the art world’s preconceived notions for a neurodivergent person of unconventional literacy. Ultimately, Castle revealed critical faults in the way collectors and institutions categorized art and artists. He prompted important questions surrounding “ability” and “disability,” challenged conventional wisdom about the benefits and limitations of formal artistic training, and catalyzed meaningful change in the way museums feature and interpret the work of artists with disabilities.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)

Exhibitions

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Untitled: The Art of James Castle
September 25, 2014February 1, 2015
In 2013 the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired 54 pieces by James Castle (1899-1977). With this acquisition, the museum now holds one of the largest public collections of Castle’s work. Untitled: The Art of James Castle features this representative selection of the artist’s immense oeuvre, including drawings, handmade books, texts, and constructions.
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We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
July 1, 2022March 26, 2023
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and Douglas O. Robson.

Related Books

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Untitled: The Art of James Castle
Untitled: The Art of James Castle celebrates one of the most enigmatic American artists of the twentieth century. For nearly seven decades, Castle gathered materials around his rural Idaho home, such as packaging, advertisements, string, and soot, and created an elaborate and umistakable representation of his world.
Cover for the catalogue "We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection"
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection
We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection traces the rise of self-taught artists in the twentieth century and examines how, despite wide-ranging societal, racial, and gender-based obstacles, their creativity and bold self-definition became major forces in American art. The exhibition features recent gifts to the museum from two generations of collectors, Margaret Z. Robson and her son Douglas O. Robson, and will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum July 1, 2022 through March 26, 2023.