Building Castles.

castle1

I first heard about James Castle at the Outsider Art Fair on Houston Street almost twenty years ago.
A gallerist told me a story that lodged in my brain, one of those stories that I may have misheard and embellished but still seems so touching and relatable that most of it had to be true.
The story was that James was a deaf mute who one day started to make art. He lived on a tiny farm in a remote part of Idaho and knew nothing of the Art world beyond. He taught himself to make art, using home made art supplies. He would draw on any piece of cardboard that came to hand — many of my favorite pieces were on the backs of unfolded ice cream cartons. He made his own ink, mixing soot from the wood stove with his own spittle. He soaked the pigment out of crepe paper to add color to his paintings. He drew with sharpened sticks.
What I remember most vividly about James’s story was his subject matter. Profoundly deaf and unable to use sign language, James lived his whole life with his family, subsistence farmers who barely got by. And so James compulsively drew houses, dream houses, big and small, making hundreds of paintings and drawings of the houses he saw and the ones he imagined.
One day, James’ nephew came to visit. Bob worked at an art school in Oregon and recognized the genius of James’ house drawings. Soon the Castles were overwhelmed by offers to stage exhibits and to buy the art. The family finally had enough money to build James his own little house on the property.
As soon as the house was completed and James moved in, he never made paintings of houses again. His work was done.

Art has that power for me too — not to create real estate perhaps, but to focus me on what’s really important. To communicate with those parts deep inside me that don’t have a voice. To take that yearning and draw it out.
In my case, it’s not as simple as just wish fulfillment. It’s a barometer on how I feel, my degree of confidence or of focus. It shows me the value of what I have, the wonders of my city, the treasures in my home, the beauty of the people who fill my life.  It puts a beautiful gilt frame around the things I have been too distracted to see.
Drawing alone can clear a path through the fog and chaos and help me see what I truly want out of life.
But unlike James, my work will never be done. At least I hope not.

19 thoughts on “Building Castles.”

  1. Thanks for the reminder of this story. And I am so pleased you share the treasures, beauty and wonder of your art and what you do to help others make art with us.
    Cheers-
    Darlene

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  2. So true Danny!! Our books can be the Tool of Manifestation in our lives, helping to point us toward and identify our own true north. Thanks for sharing this amazing story!

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  3. This really piqued my curiosity, so of course I did a search and there is a lot of very interesting information about this artist….even a documentary about James Castle. Thanks so much Danny for bringing this amazing artist (unknown to me and probably to many others) to our attention. I intend to study his work further.

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  4. Art shows me, also, the value of what I have, it helps me to be grateful, it keeps me expecting another gem around the corner and seeing what is really in front of me.

    Thanks for sharing Castle’s story. I had not heard of him before.

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  5. I am 67 years old and this winter I moved from a very large old three story house with lots of nooks, crannies and character. I moved into a small, boring suburban house. I am having a hard time feeling at home here and miss my old home immensely. Do you think it would help me to draw spaces in my new place or go back and draw a portrait of the old one. Both? I have been very depressed.

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    1. Yes! Do both. Draw a lot. It will help your depression I am sure. If course, I am not a psychologist, but have found in my own life that attending to what is bothering me helps. Writing about it works as well. Good luck with this big life change!

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    2. I’ll comment if you don’t mind. Our homes are special to us. Might I recommend to do both. Draw your old house and journal about those special places. Then create some unique places in your new house. Garden areas, corners, unique shelf space… Your old home will always mean the most to you – celebrate its memories and respect the grieving too.

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    3. I can totally relate.We sold our Sears Roebuck craftsmanship home last September in Illinois and now live in Florida in a much smaller home and I have been grieving the loss of my home but I realize my grief is not just for the house but for the memories and the past.I have given myself permission to grieve leaving my house but also my middle years,that has helped me to move on now into my senior years.Trust you will make new memories and gently let go,blessings

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    4. As you draw your new house you’ll get to know it better, and make friends with it. Depression often comes from a profound sense of loss. It is grief for something you no longer have. What you do have is your artistic imagination and you can furnish your new home with that – on paper and, perhaps in other ways as well.

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  6. Danny,thanks for the Castle story.I sketched my first self portrait today with my grandson.He is 6 months old and lives far away in California and I live on the other coast in Florida.Drawing him helps me feel closer to him and as I draw myself I face the gift of years and the blessings of this time in my life.I appreciate everything so much more than I did when I was younger and trying so hard.Drawing can bestow great magic and that too is a gift,blessings

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  7. I see what we all share is the art spirit, in the sense of Robert Henri. We are onto something miraculous, life giving for one and all. If we could have connected with James, maybe he would be able to dive even deeper into art.

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  8. I have seen Castle’s work many times but had not yet heard the story about the house. Fascinating and wonderful. Thanks for sharing something that truly speaks to the power of art.

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  9. I live near where James Castle lived and grew up. The Boise Idaho art museum has honored Castle’s art [Castle is quite the art hero here!] and I have seen a few of his exhibitions, as well as films and they are amazing. His work is considered outsider art or art brut, and the simplicity is what is so raw and real. His art pieces show beautiful detail of the farm life that surrounded him living in the country. He saw barns, animals and his home so that is what he drew, and quite obsessively. I treasure my museum book on Castle’s art and life. Our local newspaper has published many articles over the years on Castle and his art which possibility could be found through a search of the Idaho Statesman newspaper.

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  10. Thanks Danny-I’ll check out his work next time I’m at the Smithsonian American Art museum as they have a nice collection of it.

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