Arts & Culture

5 questions about the future of James Castle’s Boise homesite

The city of Boise will open the James Castle House in 2017, 40 years after the death of the self-taught artist. Castle, whose work has become known across the world, lived with his sister and her family at the modest home in Boise’s Pierce Park neighborhood for nearly 50 years, between 1931 and 1977.

Plans are on schedule to transform the house and grounds at Eugene Street and Castle Drive into a rich cultural amenity, said Rachel Reichert, the Castle project manager with the Department of Arts and History, which is overseeing the project.

When complete, the James Castle House will include outdoor exhibitions and interpretive panels for visitors, a gallery, a meeting place and lecture hall, outdoor spaces for cultural programs, and live and work space for an artist-in-residence. Visitors will see the spaces where Castle lived and get a sense of how his home related to the natural and built landscapes that inspired his work.

What’s the timeline?

Summer 2016: Construction begins.

The city has contracted with a construction manager to begin the building project. Reichert and project architect Byron Folwell will continue careful “decoding” of the homesite. This includes combing through the house and outbuildings for bits of Castle ephemera. They have already removed some drywall and ceiling panels in a back bedroom where the house’s previous owner found stashes of Castle’s artwork.

“All the rock wool insulation came down, lots of paper and bits and pieces of Castle’s artwork, shredded by squirrels and mice,” said Reichert.

The experience inspired a new term: “Castle confetti.”

“It’s all the pieces of Castle’s work no bigger than a half of an inch at the most. But that’s the type of thing that tells the story of what happened in the house ... it really is kind of great, the evidence of his time in the house,” said Reichert.

Fall 2016: The shed.

The restoration team is still figuring out how to best restore and preserve the small wooden shed or outbuilding near the main house, said Folwell. Castle lived and worked in the tiny space that once held a bed, a desk and most likely a wood stove. The structure, now a husk of a building, has direct ties to Castle’s work. Some pieces show the view from inside the shed. Castle also used the shed’s rafters as a display space.

Spring 2017: More site improvements.

After Castle’s work began to sell in the 1960s, his family bought a small trailer for him to live in. In July, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, Reichert and others involved in the project will travel to New York City to meet with art collector William Louis-Dreyfus, owner of the James Castle Collection and Archive in Boise. Louis-Dreyfus (incidentally, the father of Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame) owns the trailer and is donating it back to the city. The trailer will help complete the Castle homesite, said Terri Schorzman, director of Arts and History. The Boise contingent will thank Louis-Dreyfus for the gift as well as share construction drawings, programs and preservation efforts, she said.

“The support of the James Castle Collection and Archive is critical to the success of the project,” said Reichert.

The spring season will also see the installation of a “heritage garden” based on plants and crops the Castle family and others in the then-bucolic area would have grown when Castle was a resident.

Early summer 2017: The city will put out a call for potential artists-in-residence.

Fall 2017: The James Castle House will open to the public.

What’s the cost?

The city paid $200,000 for the property in 2015. The Boise City Council approved $356,000 to restore the site in 2016. The Department of Arts and History is asking for an additional $435,000 for 2017. The money is coming from the city’s capital budget.

An additional $75,000 will come from the city’s maintenance and operations budget to pay for exhibitions and programs.

How can the public get involved?

▪  The city’s Department of Arts and History is seeking images, artifacts and oral histories from people who grew up in the neighborhood near the Castle House or who have information about that area (Pierce Park to Collister, Hill to State streets) dating from the 1890s to the 1970s. A selection will be included in interpretive exhibitions at the homesite.

If you have information to share, email scanned photos to Reichert at, or drop items at the Arts and History office in Boise City Hall, 150 N. Capitol Blvd. If you’re interested in sharing an oral history, email Reichert or call her at 208-433-5671 for details.

▪  A temporary public art project related to the site will be installed later this summer. Two graduates of the city’s Public Art Academy, Marlene Mussler-Wright and Nicole Macdonald, will create a “street mural,” painting images related to the Castle project directly on the asphalt at the corner of Eugene Street and Castle Drive. The artists will host a public event for the community.

Is the site open to visitors?

Not yet, but the city has partnered with the Boise Virtual Reality Project to document the homesite in its current state through an online tour. The tour offers 360-degree views of several locations throughout the house and grounds.

Who was James Castle?

Castle was born in Garden Valley in 1899. Historians believe he was born deaf. He didn’t use language in the traditional sense, but instead communicated with others and occupied himself through a prolific output of drawings, collages, small books and assemblages — including evocative folded paper figures of people.

Adding to the poignancy of his work, he used salvaged materials, including packages, food containers, envelopes, string and other mailing materials to create his pieces. He made his own ink through a mix of soot and saliva. Much of his imagery focused on local landscapes, buildings, trees and animals.

Castle’s work gained its first public attention in the 1950s when his nephew came home on break from art school in Portland and realized his uncle’s talents. The nephew’s professors agreed. They included Castle’s works in an exhibition, which led to other exhibitions, including at Boise Art Museum in the early 1960s. Happily, Castle was able to attend the show’s opening reception and see his work hanging on museum walls.

After Castle’s death in 1977, his family found the interest in his work overwhelming and held the collection, unseen, for 20 years. In the late 1990s, his work was shown at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. Exhibitions in galleries and museums followed, including a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2013. The 2013 Venice Biennale also included 11 works by Castle.

Despite being self-taught and inventing his own “paint,” Castle created work that still gives a tangible sense of place, of temperature, of mood, of light and of a rural landscape that can be at times isolated and melancholy, but warm and populated at others.

“Castle was not ‘in’ the art world,” said Reichert, “but he was still somehow connected to the art of the time. His art was his way of speaking to the world.”