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Deaf and Illiterate, James Castle Found His Voice in Art


Deaf and Illiterate, James Castle Found His Voice in Art


Artist James Castle’s use of spit, soot and other found things inspires a modern artist 100 years later

The Idaho artist James Castle died in 1977 — before his work made him famous around the world. But this deaf, self-taught artist continues to inspire in the 21st century. The contemporary Boise-based artist Troy Passey has been fascinated by Castle’s work for two decades.

“Some work just stops you in your tracks,” Passey said. “It was kind of love at first sight.”

Now, James Castle House in Boise, where Castle spent most of his adult life and produced stacks of work from homemade materials, is a city-owned museum and cultural center with a thriving residency program.

“He Communicated Through Making Art”

James Castle is best known for his black and white drawings, made from soot and spit applied with a sharpened stick. His drawings capture the interiors, buildings and landscapes of the rural west. His sculptural pieces, made from stitching found materials like cigarette packs and food containers, can be found in museums worldwide.

James Castle Collection & Archive
James Castle’s art went undiscovered until 1951. Now, art lovers travel from as far as Europe to see his work. [Artwork © James Castle Collection and Archive]

Castle’s work went undiscovered until 1951 when a nephew showed pieces to art faculty at an Oregon college. It sparked immediate interest from galleries and museums in the American Northwest. Since his death, Castle’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Europe. His artwork is part of permanent collections at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution.

Castle was born on a farm in Garden Valley, Idaho, in 1899. As a teen, he attended the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind when sign language was discouraged. Castle never learned to read and write proficiently, but his family gave him opportunities throughout his life to make artwork with found materials. 

“He didn’t communicate like you and I. He communicated through making art,” Passey said.

James Castle, Untitled (monument), found paper and soot [Artwork © James Castle Collection and Archive]

Castle and his mother moved to Boise in 1931 and lived there until he died in 1977. According to Boise’s Department of Arts and History, Castle set up a “rigorous daily routine of searching the property for materials that pressed into service for his art, including cardboard, scrap paper [and] string…”

For Rachel Reichert, Cultural Sites Manager for the city’s Arts and History Department, Castle’s unique way of perceiving the world and his legendary work ethic are among his biggest legacies.

“Castle was an artist’s artist,” Reichert said. “His consistent production of work throughout his life is a major influence.”

“I Couldn’t Stop Thinking About It”

In 2014, Castle’s house was slated to go up for sale in a booming Boise real estate market, with a strong likelihood that it would be razed under a new private owner. Instead, the city bought the property and restored it, opening it to the public in 2018. Troy Passey lives with his wife and son just blocks away from the house, and Passey has had a decades-long fascination with Castle and his work.

Passey grew up on a farm in Paris, Idaho, on the state’s southeastern edge. As a kid, he wanted to be a writer.

“I spent a lot of time alone and loved reading. I was one of those kids,” Passey said.

During his undergrad years at Utah State University, he loaded up on art history classes. And when he earned a Masters Degree in English from Boise State University, he wrote his thesis on the iconic pop artist Andy Warhol and took one of Warhol’s famous quotes to heart.

“He said ‘People are often better at their second love. I would never call myself a writer… I switched my paradigm and became an artist who uses words, and I have no regrets,” Passey said.

Passey discovered Castle in the 90s at a show in Boise.

“I was so puzzled by Castle’s work. It was like, ‘What am I seeing?’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. 

Kith & Kin

The illiterate Depression-era artist has profoundly influenced the contemporary conceptual artist who builds many of his pieces around literary passages. Passey’s pieces embrace the written word, incorporating lines from Morrissey and Joy Division to Homer and Willa Cather. But Castle’s influence is clear in the stark black and white lines of Passey’s charcoal branches, horizons and moons. 

Passey is most inspired by Castle’s dedicated approach to making art.

“He just decided, ‘I’m not going to do anything but make art.’ You have to have force of will to do that,” Passey said.

Passey’s sculpture “Kith & Kin,” was installed in the yard at James Castle House last year. The black and white sculptures with the words “silent” and “listen” impressed on steel panels bring to life the unique unidentified structures that populate Castle’s landscapes. Castle’s family called them “totems,” but Passey doesn’t use that word. 

“It sort of implies intent, and we don’t know Castle’s intent,” he said.

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James Castle
Troy Passey’s sculpture “Kith & Kin,” was installed in the yard at James Castle House last year. The black and white sculptures have the words “silent” and “listen” impressed on steel panels.

For Passey, “Kith & Kin” recognizes the James Castle House as a cultural hub in his neighborhood and in Boise. The piece is also a tribute to Castle’s family who gave him the freedom to do his thing and the role that family support can play for all artists.

Breathing Life into the Space

The City of Boise bought the James Castle house in 2014 and, after four years of preservation work, opened it as a museum and cultural center. 

“It’s this great intersection of art and history” Reichert said. “There was a real opportunity for us to experiment and go big with this project.”

As part of the project, the city built a small apartment and studio space adjoining the historic house and created an ongoing artist’s residency. Passey was James Castle House’s first artist in residence. And the city recently welcomed the Wisconsin-born, Baltimore-based painter and printmaker Kailey Barthel, whose haunting interior scenes are a natural fit for the space.

“We have this residency that breathes life into the space,” Reichert said. “There’s a nice conversation between Castle and the resident and the historic space and the new space.”

James Castle House is also part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios. For example, the program protects a coalition of museums around the country that were homes of notable artists. Its program manager, Valerie A. Balint, published a guide to those museums in June. And while the center has been focused on virtual programming since COVID hit, before March, the James Castle House was a pilgrimage site for art lovers, Reichert said.

“Blue chip galleries in New York or people who saw Castle’s work in France and mega-fans from all over definitely make their way to Boise.”

See more of Troy Passey’s artwork — and inquire about purchasing his work — at troypasseyart.com. Follow him on Instagram (@troypasseyart) or Twitter (@troypasseyart).

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