A Silent Genius

In mid-September a few years back, I chanced upon news of James Castle Days in Crouch. The name didn’t ring any bells, but a banner over the old arts center announced the schedule of festivities. A curator from Boise drove up to share Mr. Castle’s life and work with our community, the place Castle too, called home. My dear friend who specializes in art history, joined me at the talk.  

We attended that presentation at the Community Center, and became acquainted with James Castle’s unique story that began here, in Garden Valley.

Born in 1899, young Castle appeared to have joined the world profoundly deaf. He never spoke or learned to read or write, though he attended a school in Gooding. But the boy could draw. As a child, he produced drawings and objects crafted from materials he scavenged around the family homestead in Garden Valley. To view the original location of his home, it was set on the west side of the Middlefork between the new, white barn entrance, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Later the family relocated to a farm in Star, then to a home near Hill Road down in Boise. Despite the moves, James pursued his art, every day from garbage inspection, to finished compositions. 

Like poet Emily Dickinson, Castle shared only a few of his works with family and others. For the most part he squirreled away pieces in unlikely spaces at each location. Behind walls, under floorboards, and any other secreted hideaway he could find. Like Beethoven, James worked in the utter silence of his internal fortress. Instead of symphonies, Castle produced images of his world.

Wrappers, labels, cardboard, blank pages from books, and even old Christmas cards were among the organic materials that made up Castle’s preferred medium. What most people considered trash, Castle manufactured into his vision of his universe. The curator explained, in her presentation, that though he was given sketch pads, and art pencils, the silent artist kept up his scrounging ways, perhaps finding unusual materials a part of his creative process. 

The artist made use of stove soot he scraped from a wood stove firebox, then mixed it with his saliva, drawing with sharpened, pointed sticks. Interiors, exteriors, letters and lists, anything that happened to catch Castle’s eye. Through other small bits of debris, he fashioned mobile objects, and though his works may appear primitive, it is his artistic experience we embrace as authentic. 

Somehow James Castle’s style appears flat, and boxy, bordering on Rocky Mountain Byzantine, but that impression is misleading. His compositions were not only complex, but depicted the interiors of empty matchbooks or canned food labels. This artist managed to duplicate what he saw into precise, complex, miniature representations.

In particular, Castle played with letters and numbers. In some pieces the precisely drawn symbols are in some kind of familiar sequence. Using small memo books the artist depicted tiny ink calendars in a conventional format, but Castle’s letters and numbers often lack a familiar order. Perhaps in his world, it is not sequence that has meaning, but atheistic precision in duplicating the shapes.  

In the 21st century, a time of aggressive social media, artists compete for attention in the overcrowded cyber world. The market is fierce. So it is almost a miracle that Castle’s creations were discovered at all. One source maintained that his work would have been, without a doubt, relegated to unappreciated oblivion if Castle hadn’t given some of his creations to his immediate family. Castle found fame due to a nephew attending art school in Oregon. This young man showed his instructor a smattering of Castle’s work, and this event introduced Castle to the art world. 

The teacher, intrigued, requested more of the collection, and an exhibit opened in Portland, then moved on to Seattle. Castle’s anonymity in the art world ended.

Still, this artist didn’t create for the critics, or for any recognition at all. True to his expression, Castle created art for its own sake, and would have continued working either way. His surrounding world remained his muse where the substance of his vision concerned recording the life he observed around him.

After his 1951 discovery, Castle’s pieces appeared in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Whitney in Manhattan, and even in Madrid. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has exhibited a lion share of Castle’s art, in the museum’s folk collection. Another art exhibit is in Boise, located in the last house in which he dwelled.  The beauty of the collection is that it is open to the public, meaning we all can share the vision of an extraordinary artist born along the Middlefork. Here in Garden Valley and we have the privilege of living in the same locale, along the same river, the same trees, and the same mountains that inspired Castle. 

James Castle’s life spanned through the 20th Century, America’s formative years. Wars and economic hard times ebbed and flowed, and he created. Man landed on the moon, and James continued to create. We met the Beatles, and watched color television, and Castle explored his soundless world, generating the visual snapshots he perceived in his Idaho landscape. 

At the end of the curator’s presentation, she introduced two bearded men in bibbed overalls. These elderly gentlemen were two of Castle’s nephews, and grew up with their Uncle James in the house. They mentioned that Castle happened to enjoy The Red Skelton Hour on CBS. Other than that Tuesday night slot Castle showed little interest in other shows. That struck me as rather interesting, since I, too, liked Skelton. And the difference? The comedy hour rested on Skelton’s amusing pantomime skits. So, of course Castle tuned in with the rest of the family—he could laugh along. 

The surprise of Castle is how he transcended place and time. For a child born in a tiny settlement in the Idaho mountains to emerge as an accomplished artist is remarkable. Though hearing impaired at birth, and forever silent, James Castle’s story is our unexpected Garden Valley treasure.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Chumbley also has written two plays, “Clay” exploring the life of statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” examining the origins of racism and slavery in America.


Bull Moose

The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.  Harry Truman

The story began with a promise. Following his electoral victory in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt vowed to the public he would not run again in 1908. Assuming office in 1901, following the death of William McKinley, then Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt could have run in ‘08. But he had made that promise. 

Selecting an heir, TR tapped the occupation governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft. TR believed he could happily step aside and pursue private interests with Mr. Taft in the White House. Taft did not want to be president, but his wife did. Though preferring a seat on the Supreme Court, Taft soon caved to his wife and accepted TR’s offer. 

Reform and good government played a large part in Roosevelt’s administration. He challenged unfettered capitalism, pushing for regulations of railroads, and breaking John D. Rockefeller’s stranglehold on the oil industry. One of Theodore’s paramount issues was preserving America’s treasure trove of national parks, and wilderness areas. 

TR loved the West and wished to regulate development where it wasn’t needed. After completing his term, and Taft safely elected, TR went on safari in Africa with one of his sons. By the time Roosevelt returned he learned things were not to his liking in Washington. Taft had made decisions, and endorsed policies Roosevelt had opposed during his administration. 

In short, Taft had the audacity to run his own administration. 

A big issue of contention was conservation of lands and natural resources. Unlike TR, Taft opened up Alaska’s Chugach National Forest to coal mining. Worse, Taft fired TR’s man in the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, a spokesman for public land as recreational for the people. Suffice it to say this, and other disputes turned ugly.

The 1912 campaign season began with TR’s new third party, the Progressive or Bull Moose Party. William Howard Taft also announced his run for a second term for the GOP. New Jersey Governor, Woodrow Wilson, received the Democratic nomination in Baltimore. 

Of course the Republican Party split between Republican conservatives, and the Progressives backing Roosevelt. And Wilson became the 28th President of the United States.

What does that moment of time portend for today? Certainly a major Republican split between traditional and reactionary members is in the offing. Much like TR’s progressive agenda, and Taft’s middle-of-the road-conservatism, GOP voters are going to have to decide. 

Clearly this same party is sliding into another major split in 2024. Is neofascism the preference of today’s organization? That one announced candidate has another term coming, and has made plenty of promises too. Will middle of the road conservatives tone him down and redeem the party in their own image? Maybe. But for today the smart money is on that 80-year-old moderate incumbent.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has penned two historic plays, “Clay” about the life of statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” exploring the the beginnings of slavery and racism.