Almost 40 years ago, James Castle, arguably the most famous artist to come out of Idaho in the 20th century, passed away at his family home in Boise after decades of creating unique art made mostly from found materials at hand. His modest family home—including the small shed out back in which he lived for years—eventually changed hands, as most houses do. But, similarly to his art, people eventually realized the humble home deserved recognition and preservation.
In July 2015, the city of Boise bought the property from its previous owners, and now is undertaking a campaign to refurbish and preserve the home and property in Castle’s memory. Rachel Reichert, cultural sites manager for the city of Boise, will travel to Ketchum on Thursday, May 4, to give a talk at The Community Library, 415 Spruce Ave., from 6-7:30 p.m., to discuss Boise’s restoration and preservation efforts as well as to discuss Castle’s life and work and the programs the city plans to establish at the house. Reichert will be joined by Byron Folwell, an architect and design consultant, to discuss the restoration efforts.
The programs that Boise plans to feature at the site include educational tours, workshops, presentations and classroom activities, as well as art exhibitions and artists’ residencies. “For the past two years, we’ve been researching and developing a plan,” Reichert said. “We will begin construction this fall.” In October 2016, the city, along with students from Boise State University, performed an archaeological dig at the 1,500-square-foot house and the small shed where Castle actually lived. “We were able to uncover some really interesting artifacts,” Reichert said.
The team uncovered a variety of homemade tools that Castle had used to create his art, as well as evidence of everyday life—plates, nails, etc. Reichert said residents in the neighborhood are becoming more excited about the project—especially after they learned about the house’s former owner. “Even the neighborhood had no clue they were living next to the home of James Castle,” Reichert said. Inside the walls of the house, researchers even began finding remains of some of Castle’s work that he had stashed there years ago. “There is evidence of Castle’s work in the insulation,” Reichert said. “It was shredded by squirrels and mice, and we keep finding what we call ‘Castle confetti’ in the walls.”
Reichert said she will bring a few artifacts to the library for the presentation, including some of the Castle confetti they found. Reichert said she’s excited to bring the talk to Ketchum, not only to share their efforts and Castle’s history with the community here but also because they are working on establishing a partnership with The Community Library, which oversees the Hemingway House in Ketchum. “It seemed like a cool relationship to develop,” she said. “It’s really exciting, because as far as I know, there aren’t any other artist houses in Idaho being preserved like this.”
Castle was a self-taught artist who was severely deaf and mostly mute throughout his life, communicating primarily through the works of art he created with found materials like discarded mail and food containers, using an improvised ink he created by mixing his saliva with soot scraped from the wood-burning stoves of his home. It wasn’t until the 1950s—when Castle’s nephew Bob Beach brought some of Castle’s drawings back with him to show his professors at the Museum Art School in Portland—that Castle began to receive wider recognition for his work. Now, his work is shown in major institutions the world over.
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