Skip to Main Content

James Castle

James Castle, c. 1962

James Castle, c. 1962

Courtesy of the James Castle Collection and Archive LP

Born 1899, Garden Valley, Idaho

Died 1977, Boise, Idaho

In over five decades dedicated almost exclusively to art making, James Castle crafted a remembered and imagined universe in thousands of drawings, handmade books, and constructions. Using primarily stove soot and saliva on found papers such as flattened envelopes, unfolded food cartons, and other paper scraps, Castle intuitively devised a range of styles for depicting the buildings, landscape, and occupants—real and fictional—of his family’s rural Idaho farm. This prolific corpus ranges from crisply rendered architectural interiors, detailed with wallpaper and wood paneling, to spare atmospheric landscapes under murky skies and elaborate rural vistas.

While his prodigious output speaks to an enduring preoccupation with place, the location was nonetheless occasionally overlaid with surreal, totemlike structures and mysterious topiaries. Other drawings employ perspective ingeniously (for example, the front and back of a drawing may depict the same scene from two vantage points), a conceptual approach to articulating form that is shared by the bound paper constructions. Their blocky figures have folded lapels and tied on paper buttons; elsewhere, layered papers suggest feathers on birds, giving the schematic representations nuances of texture and volume. Though wide in scope, Castle’s choice of subjects was very particular: birds, coats, and water pitchers appear with some frequency, while other farm animals and quotidian objects are absent.

Born deaf, Castle never learned to read, write, or sign and led a reclusive life, which makes his self-identification as an artist and his interest in language all the more remarkable: one construction strikingly bears the word “place.” Though he required solitude to work (first in the attic of the family home and later in a trailer purchased with proceeds from sales of his drawings), Castle took pride in sharing his works with appreciative visitors. Some depict “exhibitions”—whether privately staged or entirely imagined remains unknown—with his drawings arranged densely on a wall and his constructed figures gathered along a rafter or at the junction of floor and wall. In 1963, a selection of his drawings was shown at the Boise Gallery of Art (now the Boise Art Museum), an exhibition the proud artist attended and recorded in an exceptional drawing.


Lauren Schell Dickens


Cooke, Lynne, et al. James Castle: Show and Store. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, with D.A.P., New York, 2011.

Percy, Ann, ed. James Castle: A Retrospective. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.