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Underground with an outsider: 10 finds from the James Castle house dig

The archaeological dig at the home of outsider artist James Castle turned up art-related artifacts. But it also turned up modest household items that would have been in use at the time the Castle family lived at what’s now Castle Drive and Eugene Street in West Boise. The finds include this small brown glass vaseline jar with embossed manufacturer’s stamp: “Chesebrough Manfg. Co., New York.”
The archaeological dig at the home of outsider artist James Castle turned up art-related artifacts. But it also turned up modest household items that would have been in use at the time the Castle family lived at what’s now Castle Drive and Eugene Street in West Boise. The finds include this small brown glass vaseline jar with embossed manufacturer’s stamp: “Chesebrough Manfg. Co., New York.”

Conducting an archaeological dig at famed outsider artist James Castle’s West Boise homesite required a special mindset, University of Idaho Professor Mark Warner said.

Castle used odd items like handmade “brushes” fashioned from wads of cloth, simple pencils and ink made from soot and spit to create his evocative work.

Student archaeologists and volunteers had to be tuned in to “thinking a little differently” when exploring the Castle site, Warner said. “We were giving everyone a heads-up that there was stuff here being used in ways that isn’t normal use.”

The mindset paid off. Student archaeologists and volunteers found objects that in another context might not have been as meaningful, like a can that may have held Castle’s homemade ink, drawing sticks, a blackened wad of cloth they believe Castle used to apply paint, and more, including common household refuse, like an old Vaseline jar and a corroded spoon.

The dig ended Oct. 12. The homesite, at the corner of Castle Drive and Eugene Street, is the focus of a major city restoration project to transform it into a cultural heritage complex with gallery, artist’s residence and educational programs. The small trailer where Castle lived and worked for many years will also be replaced at its original site on the property. The James Castle Collection and Archive recently donated the trailer to the city.

The artifacts uncovered at the recent dig will travel to the University of Idaho to be cataloged and studied before returning to Boise. Some objects will end up in future displays at the homesite.

“This project checked a lot of boxes,” Warner said. “We were able to help the city in an important historic preservation project. Conversely, the city was savvy enough to know that archaeology could play a part. It’s learning for everybody.”

The idea of helping preserve the domestic history of Castle, one of Boise’s most notable if still somewhat obscure citizens, was also a lure, said Warner.

Around 300 people visited the site during the dig, which was open to the public. Students from Boise State University and College of Western Idaho also participated in the University of Idaho-led project.

The university has led numerous urban digs in Boise in past years, most recently on the grounds of old Fort Boise, now the VA Medical Center on Fort Street. While many think of Egyptian pyramids and crumbled Roman temples when they think of archaeology, the University of Idaho digs have focused on relatively recent history, exploring the lives of Boiseans who lived 100 years, or fewer, ago.

Warner said the university may lead more digs at the site depending on the construction schedule. The site is slated to open to the public in 2017.

Curious about what the archaeologists found?

Take a look.

Who was James Castle?

Castle was born in 1899 in Garden Valley and died in Boise in 1977, and is arguably Idaho’s best-known visual artist. Institutions throughout the world, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Smithsonian, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid and many more have displayed his work.

Historians say that Castle was born two months premature and deaf, and didn’t learn language in the traditional way. He turned to visual imagery instead. He created paintings, books and “constructions” — birds, human figures, furniture. He used materials he found, some salvaged from his father’s general store and post office, some salvaged from neighborhood trash bins. He drew with sticks and broken fountain pen nibs among other materials. He made ink from soot and spit. According to the James Castle Collection and Archive biography, Castle created paint by squeezing color out of wet crepe paper. Later, when family members provided store-bought art supplies, he incorporated those into his work.

People began recognizing Castle’s artistic talent thanks to his nephew, who was studying art in Portland and was the first to suggest that Castle’s unusual work was notable. He shared it with his professors, who agreed. Castle’s work was featured in exhibitions throughout the Northwest until his death. There was a resurgence in Castle’s popularity in the late 1990s. Collectors have paid tens of thousands of dollars for single works.

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