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Restoration gets underway at the James Castle homesite

The city of Boise bought the former homesite of self-taught artist James Castle in 2015. City leaders celebrated a groundbreaking for the project on Tuesday morning. Construction will begin to transform the site at Eugene Street and Castle Drive into a complex devoted to history, culture and to telling the story of one of Idaho’s most celebrated artists.

Castle’s work started gaining attention in the 1950s. It became more popular in the late 1990s when it appeared in 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. That year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired more than 50 works by Castle. Numerous museums also hold his works in their permanent collections.

The James Castle House will stand as a tribute to the artist and tell the story of the last decades of his life, until his death in 1977, in what was then a quiet, rural corner of the city.

The “heritage homesite” is the first of its kind in Boise. It will open to the public in the spring of 2018, said Rachel Reichert, the Castle project manager with the Boise Department of Arts and History.

When complete, the site will include the family’s original house, restored with period fixtures and furnishings, classroom space and a gallery to exhibit Castle’s work. Visitors will see inside restored outbuildings that include a rustic shed and Castle’s small trailer, restored and placed at its original site on the property.

The complex will offer weekly tours as well as a live/work space for a visiting artist program. It will include a book shop where visitors will be able to buy a variety of art-related books, materials and art supplies similar to those Castle used when creating his distinctive, atmospheric drawings.

A house of mysteries

Reichert said she has been immersed in researching every aspect of the homesite, which was once 200 acres, settled through the Homestead Act of 1862 (that remained on the books until 1976 and encouraged settlement of much of the West).

The original Castle house, parts of which date back to the early 1900s, has a long history of turning up relics. A past owner found a trove of Castle’s drawings in the walls of the house in 2010. The ownership of the drawings became the subject of a lawsuit. A judge decided Castle’s family — not the house’s owner — had rights to the art work. The University of Idaho led an urban archaeology dig at the site during the fall of 2016. The dig uncovered fragments of art supplies among other objects, old cutlery and jars. The house is still revealing secrets, said Reichert.

“The house is a story of its own,” she said. “Right when we think we have it figured out.”

Records reveal that the house has gone through seven additions and alterations through the years. Reichert and project architect Byron Folwell have removed drywall in the house and found old wallpaper as well as beaverboard, a once-popular building material made of compressed wood fibers and pulp. (Grant Wood painted “American Gothic” on beaverboard in 1930.) One excavation revealed an entire wall “papered” with cut-up women’s dresses. Stripping another wall revealed a layer comprised of issues of The Seattle Times dated 1941. All of these artifacts will be included in some form in the restored site, said Reichert. Some of the house’s original beams will be left in place so visitors can study the evolution of the house’s structure through time.

In addition to the significance of telling the story of a famous artist, restoring the Castle home will preserve a sense of small town Western life during the Great Depression and beyond.

It’s “the story of average,” said Reichert — a story that’s often overlooked when it comes to preservation efforts that have often focused on structures that are more grand than one family’s modest house in a small Western city. The story of the house and the property, she added, is as complex as the story of Castle himself.

Cool, but challenging

The James Castle House project restoration has come with challenges, said Reichert, even if it is “the coolest project ever.”

There are complex problems to be solved, like how to protect more vulnerable structures like the old shed on the property and Castle’s trailer, like how to recreate a historically accurate environment while following building codes.

The project timeline has lengthened as well. The original plan had been to complete the project in the fall of 2017. Instead, construction will begin this summer and continue through December. Reichert and the city staff will take a couple months to set up programs at the site then plan a grand opening.

The project’s budget, including the $200,000 the city paid for the site in 2015, is $1.4 million. The money is coming from the city’s capital budget and the maintenance and operations budget for exhibitions and programs. The project is also accepting donations at boiseartsandhistory.org on the James Castle House project page.

The work and intriguing story of Idaho artist Castle have captured the imagination of playwright Charles Mee and director Kim Weild, artistic director of Our Voices Theatre. Mee’s play “Soot and Spit” is now in its world-premiere production at the New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City. Read more here.

James Castle House groundbreaking

Join Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, members of the Boise City Council and staff from the Boise City Department of Arts & History as they begin the construction phase of the James Castle House.

A groundbreaking ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 13, at the site at 5015 N. Eugene St. (at the corner of Castle Drive in Boise’s Pierce Park neighborhood).

Follow the project on the James Castle House Facebook page.

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.

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.”

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