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Boise State Celebrates Artist James Castle with Artist Book Exhibition, More

James Castle
Artist James Castle (1899-1977).

Boise artist James Castle (1899-1977) is arguably Idaho’s most famous visual artist. Born deaf, Castle relied on found materials to make his art. He used paper scraps and packaging, twine, and paint made of soot and spit to create his famously atmospheric and frequently poignant drawings, collages, assemblages, books and more.

James Castle Drawing
James Castle’s drawing of the house on Eugene Street.

Castle’s former home, the James Castle House at 5015 Eugene St. in Boise’s Collister neighborhood, will open to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon April 28. Other festivities include self-guided tours from 1-6 p.m. and music from Hillfolk Noir from 1-4 p.m. Kathleen Keys, chair of Boise State’s Department of Art, will lead a found materials arts workshop on the house’s Great Lawn from 1-4 p.m.

More events taking place in April on the Boise State campus and across the city will pay tribute to this visionary “outsider” artist whose work is in the collections of major museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and many others.

Castle, bound

An exhibition, James Castle: Eighteen Artist Books, will open on April 2 and run through May 20 in the first floor lobby of Albertsons Library. A reception will take place from 4-7 p.m. Friday, April 6. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served. Free parking will be available in the East and West Plaza lots (by the B).

During his lifetime, Castle frequently grouped images, printed and hand-lettered pages, then bound them into “self-published” books. This exhibition features some of those books collected by the late Boise State English professor Tom Trusky. Trusky was a visionary in his own right who early on recognized Castle’s genius. As the exhibition’s interpretive materials note, books in the exhibition “will open to pages that reflect (Castle’s) deliberation and intended execution through use of patterns, pictorial juxtapositions, repetition of techniques and vernacular materials.”

Note, a complementary exhibition, The Literary Legacy of Tom Trusky, will be held in Special Collections and Archives at Albertsons Library from April 2 through Dec. 15. This exhibition will celebrate the opening of the Tom Trusky Papers, a collection of the professor’s research papers, zines, art books and more. A selection of materials will be on view during the Castle reception on April 6. The collection will be open to researchers beginning Monday, April 9.

Symposium, city celebration

The City of Boise and the James Castle Collection will host “A Place Called Home,” an inaugural three-day symposium on Castle’s life and works, April 25-28. The keynote speaker is Nicholas R. Bell, who curated the exhibition “Untitled: The Art of James Castle” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Boise State is one of the sponsors. Symposium events include a lunch reception for attendees at the Eighteen Artist Books exhibition on campus on April 26.

A community party and film screening will take place from 6:30-9 p.m. on April 26 at the Egyptian Theater in downtown Boise. The event will begin with opening remarks by Boise Mayor David Bieter, followed by comments from Rachel Reichert, the city’s cultural sites manager who oversaw the restoration, and architect Byron Folwell, then a screening of Jeffrey Wolf’s film “James Castle: Portrait of an Artist.” The emcee for the evening is Jodi Eichelberger from Story Story Night. Hillfolk Noir will provide the music. The event is free and open to the public, but you must reserve your spot online through Eventbrite.

More Boise State Connections

Artist Troy Passey and writer J. Reuben Appelman, both of whom have taught at Boise State, combined their talents with “Woodsmoke,” a book inspired by the artists’ contemplation of Castle’s home and the landscapes associated with him. The book, its poems and imagery, are the basis for an exhibition of the same name at Ming Studios, 420 6th St. in Boise. The exhibition will open with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Thursday, April 5. Works will be on display through April 28.

James Castle’s Career, and House

Castle was a prolific artist. He created work quietly, with modest materials, and without much recognition for much of his life. In the 1950s, his nephew, an art student, began to take notice of Castle’s work. He showed it to his professors at the Museum Art School in Portland, Oregon. They agreed it was special. Castle’s work began appearing in exhibitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Happily, he was able to enjoy a bit of fame before he died in 1977, including attending his own exhibition at the Boise Art Museum in 1963. Following his death, his family kept his work under wraps for two decades. It appeared again at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City in 1998. More exhibitions followed throughout the country. Museums began acquiring Castle’s works for their collections.

Castle lived and worked at the family home on Eugene Street during the last years of his life, from 1931 until his death.

City leaders, recognizing Castle’s significance as a unique figure — a true genius — in the cultural history of the city and the state, bought the property in 2015. The Department of Arts and History has spent the last three years restoring and expanding the site, a $1.2 million investment.

“Without these kinds of special places, we don’t know who we are, or where we are going,” said Reichert. “Saving a place like this is like saving our identity.”

The James Castle House also represents an investment in a neighborhood that hasn’t gotten a lot of public cultural investment in the past.

When the house opens on the 28th, attractions will include a new gallery space. Its first exhibition will feature 61 original works by Castle and more than 30 artifacts, some found during an archaeological dig on the site in 2016.

James Castle House
The James Castle House before restoration and expansion.

The complex also houses a small retail area. Its design is loosely based on the general store run by the Castle family in Garden Valley, said Rachel Reichert. Visitors will be able to buy books and gifts inspired by Castle. Proceeds will support ongoing programs at the house, including an artist-in-residence program. More than 50 artists from around the country responded to the program’s first call for applications, said Reichert. Local artists, including Troy Passey and Karen Woods, have spent brief informal residencies at the house to help make sure it’s ready for a longer term artist-in-residence. The city will announce the name of the first artist during the celebrations in April.

Other historically significant features on the site include a small shed, which was part of the original family homestead. Castle’s live-in trailer, donated to the city by the James Castle Collection and Archive, will return to the site in the future.

Following the grand opening, the James Castle House will be open to the public Thursdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25, Jan. 1, July 4).

James Castle shed
Interior of a historic shed on the Castle site.
James Castle's trailer
James Castle’s trailer, currently in storage, will eventually return to Eugene Street.
James Castle House
Newly restored and expanded James Castle House.