James Castle was deaf from birth. He never learned sign language, or lip reading or any kind of reading. He had no conventional way to communicate with his family.
His family farmed and owned a general store. He used to find scraps from the house and shop and soot from the fireplace to make art. He made pictures of everyday objects – people he knew, houses, household products and calendars. Those pictures are simple but intricate and absolutely compelling.
His family was clearly well off enough – but his creations are a testament to the poverty of the era – a time when art supplies were a luxury. He uses everything and is able to eke so much out of a scrap, or charcoal made of soot and spit or colors created from bleeding colored tissue paper.
And it reminds me of being a kid myself when you didn’t ask for art supplies, you used whatever was there. Not necessarily out of poverty but out of necessity and immediacy. (I think of the dresses I have lost to my own daughters’ inspirations!) It’s a brief time for most of us before consequences matter – when all that matters is the project at hand – the art. But it’s not art for art sake really. You make it for your family. You make it because you can, you have the skill (whatever level), the time and the found supplies.
Sounds like Castle had the same. Apparently he proudly showed his work to his family. He made some 20,000 objects! Family members who appreciated his art got to see more. Those who did not show appreciation were off the patron list.
And like a child’s art, he drew what he knew. Some pictures were very realistic and captured a moment in time. Some were more fanciful. (Like the main with the chair as a head.) He drew with great detail and he had the steady hand and eye of an adult.
Despite not being unable to read he used letters and numbers. He would replicate what was around him. Commercial products featured highly – sometimes in a stylized Warhol-esque way but mostly as part of the landscape of his life.
Apparently he did a whole serious of little houses. Different colors. Different shapes. But houses. Eventually his sister built a small house for him on the family land and that’s where he lived. He interacted with family when he wanted. When he had enough he would go back to his little house. He kept bundles and bundles of his art treasures.
I’m going to include just one picture here – it is the one that broke my heart. It’s called friend. It’s very difficult to not put my perspective on how lonely his life must have been – but as a niece or sister noted in the video accompanying the exhibit – he did what he wanted. He was an artist who woke up, did art and went to bed. He did what he liked.