First look inside the James Castle House and his lost artworks
As much attention as Boise has been getting lately because of its rapid growth, its floods of newcomers and its blossoming culture of tacos, ale, and creative energy, it’s likely to get even more when the James Castle House in the Collister/Pierce Park neighborhood opens this week. The ribbon-cutting on Saturday at the James Castle House kicks off with remarks by Boise Mayor David Bieter at noon. (Full schedule, below)
The home and the artist who lived there might be more famous outside of Idaho than inside the Gem State, but there are plenty of reasons to check it out.
'Soot and spit' just the start
James Castle was a self-taught artist who was born in Garden Valley in 1899. He lived and worked and died in Boise in 1977 – for context, the same year Elvis Presley died. Castle is a big deal, with works hanging in galleries, museums and collections on American and foreign soil.
Castle was born deaf and did not speak. He communicated through his art, developing powers of observation from which any of us — in any profession — might learn, said Fonda Portales, art curator and collections manager at Boise State University, which owns several Castle works.
“His main sensibility is through sight and touch. The way in which he interacts with the world, with landscapes, with textures, the details is exquisite,” said Portales.
His paintings, books and "constructions" — animals, human figures and furniture — were made with materials he found or salvaged. You will rarely read something about the artist that does not mention that he made his own "paint" with soot and spit. As legend has it, even later in his life, when people recognized Castle’s talents and he got access to real paint, he opted to stick with the soot and spit.
Words like “outsider” and “mysterious” tend to stick to Castle. One writer even described him — perhaps slightly dismissively — as the "art world’s own Boo Radley," referring to the ominous if ultimately benevolent shut-in of "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame.
In truth, despite his disabilities, Castle wasn’t a shut-in. He regularly showed his work to people. One account has him selling it in exchange for cigarettes. Castle was in the world and lived long enough to know that people loved his work. He attended his own exhibition at the Boise Art Museum in the 1960s.
Gem State gems
The city of Boise bought Castle’s family home at 5015 Eugene Street and has spent the past three years restoring and expanding it into a cultural site that will enliven a West Boise neighborhood that hasn’t had a lot of public culture investment. The only similar cultural homesite in the state is Ernest Hemingway’s former residence in Ketchum, which soon will open its own residency program, but is mostly closed to the public.
The James Castle House will host events and exhibitions. It will welcome visitors and offer residencies for artists.
After putting out the call for applications, the city received 50 applications from across the country from artists eager to come to Boise and stay in the James Castle House. The James Castle Symposium, April 26-27, will bring art experts from around the country to Boise.
The Castle story, said Portales, “is art history, still in the making.”
When The Antiques Road Show filmed in Boise in 2014, producers chose to highlight Castle as a local treasure. Host Mark Walberg referred to him as “Idaho’s native son.”
Even with, or perhaps because of the limitations caused by his disabilities, Castle saw, understood and transcribed the Idaho landscape in a way that immediately conveys the time of day, the temperature of the air, people and animals.
“How often do we study the places and the people around us?” said Portales. “Castle found a joyfulness in the mundane.”
According to one art appraiser, a Castle paper sculpture of a rooster might sell at auction for as much as $20,000. You don’t need deep pockets to find your own piece of the Castle story. Most of the upcoming Castle celebrations — including a yearlong exhibition of his work at the house, the opening party and a film screening on Thursday at the Egyptian — and the ribbon-cutting and tours at the house on Saturday, are free, as is an exhibition of Castle works at Albertsons Library at Boise State University (through May 20). After the opening events, the house will be open regularly, with free admission.
Make a day of it ...
The ribbon-cutting on Saturday kicks off at noon. But you can start the day with coffee or breakfast in Hyde Park — which was a well-established neighborhood in 1931 when James Castle moved to (the relatively nearby) Eugene Street. Enjoy a drive out Hill Road to the Castle House. Imagine what it might have been like amid the Great Depression when the Castle family was there. Try to see what the artist saw in the local landscape.
After you visit the Castle house, you can explore other Castle-related sites. Drive to Garden Valley where he was born (about an hour north of Boise). The family home where Castle lived is no longer standing, but the landscape is reminiscent of those in his art. Members of Castle’s mother’s family, the Scanlans, are buried in the cemetery in Placerville, Idaho, south of Garden Valley. Castle died in Boise and is buried in Dry Creek Cemetery. Feel like a drive to Gooding? Castle attended school at the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind in 1910-1915.
... Or make it through in an hour
The James Castle House and its exhibition space will not overwhelm you. Still, if you want to concentrate on just one piece during your first visit, find the drawing hanging on the western gallery wall just outside the entrance to the visiting artist’s studio. It’s a drawing of the Eugene Street house, the very one you’re standing in. It’s one of the 11 works found inside the walls of the house — a surprise — in the winter of 2016. Rachel Reichert, Boise cultural sites manager, said this drawing shows the house as it was, but also trees that grew on the site and other landscape elements.
Bring the kids
The ribbon-cutting on Saturday includes live music by local band Hillfolk Noire and art workshops that will let you and the artistically inclined members of your family create something cool on the grounds where Castle lived and worked.
Eberhard Faber pencils
The James Castle House includes a small, elegant on-site retail shop. Melissa Swafford, cultural sites customer service/retail coordinator, has carefully selected every item so it relates in some way to Castle, or to the sensibilities of the times when he was alive. Stock includes diner-style mugs printed with images of the house, simple enamel ware like that seen in his work, imported garden twine – Castle assembled many of his works with twine – and those famous Eberhard pencils, treasured by artists and writers. They went on the market in the 1930s, around the time Castle moved into the house on Eugene Street.
Proceeds from the shop will benefit ongoing programs at the house.
Unleash your hidden architect
The house went through several expansions over the years. The restoration project revealed many of the house’s bones and left them in place – for example, the rafters in the ceiling — so visitors can trace the building’s various phases. One room retains layers of old newspaper and fabric on the walls, used for insulation.
The restoration crew, led by Reichert and architect Byron Folwell, paid close attention to detail. Nothing in this small complex is accidental. A few examples: the fixtures in the on-site artist’s residence duplicate fixtures seen in Castle’s works; the window in the artist’s residence bedroom looks out on the shed where Castle worked; the room’s size and shape also duplicate that shed; the exterior of the oldest part of the house matches its early 1940s appearance as closely as possible, down to the window boxes that appear in Castle’s drawings; and new cinder blocks match original Castle-era cinder blocks for one interior wall.
The Castle House is also unique in the realm of preservation. Preservation efforts tend to focus on large and grand structures, high-profile buildings like churches and courthouses. Restoration and expansion of the James Castle House represents the rarer preservation of a very modest structure, a house where working people lived and farmed. Many of these kinds of structures are lost because no one thinks they’re important enough to save.
The James Castle House, said Folwell, “is something that should be saved, that was saved at the right time.”
- An exhibition: “Between Board and Batten: Works from the James Castle House,” opening April 28. The exhibit will be on display for one year at the James Castle House, 5015 Eugene St., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, free admission.
- James Castle House: A Place Called Home Inaugural Symposium, April 26-27, featuring visiting scholars, collectors and curators from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Mystic Seaport, Stanford University and more. $250-$325. Registration Required. Register online here.
- James Castle House: Opening party and community film screening, 7-9:30 p.m., Thursday, April 26 at the Egyptian Theater. Free admission, but online registration is required.
- James Castle House: Public Opening & Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, noon-6 p.m., Saturday, April 28 at the James Castle House, 5015 Eugene St. in Boise. Free and open to the public.