James Castle drawings now on view at Cummer Museum

Recent visitors to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida have been greeted with a variety of freshly displayed artworks new to the galleries. Romare Bearden. Elizabeth Catlett. Most recently, James Castle.

Castle (Garden Valley, Idaho; 1899-1977) possesses one of the most interesting backstories in American art history. He was born deaf, learning to communicate – in part – through art. Completely self-taught, Castle’s creations took shape from household items like envelopes and matchbooks. For his drawings, instead of ink or pen, he combined stove soot and spit.

This artistic medium results in the Cummer posting the most unusual wall text information I’ve ever seen to coincide with Castle’s drawings now on view:

“Found paper, soot, spit and colored pulp.”

Not exactly gold leaf on linen.

James Castle, untitled drawing. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

Regardless, Castle’s drawings – which he never dated or titled – have that somewhat undefinable personal, expressive language other self-taught folk artists who’ve stood the test of time like Bill Traylor or Thornton Dial Sr. have. They share intimate details of an uneasy life. Raw emotion. Simple, yes. Naïve, perhaps. Candid and soulful, too; this is undoubtably a creative mind with something to say.

Many will regard these pictures with the dismissive analysis of “my kid could do that.” No, she or he couldn’t. A kid could go mark-for-mark mimicking the lines and shadows, possibly – in the same way a kid could drip paint on a canvas “like” Pollock – but what your kid couldn’t do is create the composition, tell the story, impart in the picture the feeling.

Lasting artwork is more than the marks, it’s the artist, the artistry, the idea. It’s having that idea before anyone else had that idea. It’s opening your world up for others to explore. Your kid couldn’t do this because your kid has nothing interesting to share, no stories to tell, no ideas to call their own.

That’s what the “outsider” artists like Castle – who never showed in a gallery – have in spades. What they lack in technical expertise, in atmospheric perspective and vanishing points and foreshortening, they make up for with emotion, narrative, originality.

Despite facing obvious obstacles, thanks to the support of his family, he had dedicated space at home to create. He had an abundance of time to devote to his artmaking. His artmaking was supported.

Castle created art because art was inside him. He wasn’t creating for a “market.” He was creating out of compulsion to do so. To enrich his life. To connect with an exterior world.

James Castle was eventually recognized for his talent. The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an exhibition of his work in 2014.

James Castle, untitled drawing. Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.

It’s difficult not to consider his paintings along with his deafness when observing them. Knowing Castle was deaf, his paintings “read” as silent. Isolated. Walled-off. They feel like pictorial instructions for engaging with him. A visual explanation of personal experiences.

Artwork of this nature, whether it’s called self-taught, naïve, outsider, folk, innocent, auto-didact, or any other moniker, represents an intriguing fissure of the art world worthy of exploration. James Castle’s drawings at the Cummer Museum make for an opportune starting point.

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