MAP on the Road: Boise x James Castle House

by | Jul 1, 2018 | MAP Talks

I had the great fortune to be brought back to Boise, ID in June for a week-long engagement as “artist adviser in residence” at Surel’s Place, sponsored by the Idaho Commission on the Arts. I’d been at Surel’s Place two years prior for a Business of Art lecture, and absolutely fell in love with Boise and my my new Boise pals.

For this year’s visit, we extended the gig to include a lecture followed by five days of one-one-one meetings with artists to deeper dive on lecture topics and address individual career needs. This gave artists time to digest the talk’s intensive topics and connect the dots to their individual practice.

Before and/or after each day’s string of meetings, I’d take full advantage of my residence’s hop-and-skip proximity to the gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, with its 25-mile tree-lined paths along the river. I’d walk to the charming downtown or hoof the extra mile or so to the Boise Museum. I knew the city pretty well from my last visit, and the extended interim stay allowed me to expand my tourism repertoire.

A very cool spot I visited (by car) was the James Castle House. Castle (1899-1977) was a self-taught artist, who, due to his being born deaf, had never learned to read, write or adopt traditional means of communication. However, he was able to amply express himself through art. His output was prolific, capturing rural life in Idaho during the early 20th century. The Castle House was his home.

Now a cultural landmark, the house recently underwent an upgrade and renovation, adding a professional exhibition space and artist studio within the home’s original footprint. One of the original walls is preserved behind Plexi, standing as a time machine testament to the years of occupancy with its exposed layers of disparate wallpaper and newspaper DIY attempts at insulation.

During the renovation, secret surprises laid in wait. A significant number of Castle’s drawings were discovered, tied in small bundles and stowed away in the walls. In the gallery, there’s an evocative collection of Castle’s found this and that’s, including writing and drawing implements. Enshrined under Plexi on plinths, they feel like mini art pieces unto their own.

Castle’s own extremely modest living quarters still stands untouched just outside the main house. It certainly worn for wear, an even more eerie record of a bygone era. When you duck inside, the ceiling is super low, you can peer out one of the small windows towards the house, the exact vantage point from where Castle made his sketches of the original home. Surrounding you are snippets of wallpaper and tiny built-in cabinets and shelves that hang catawampus under the tiny overhead loft where Castle would apparently stage his cardboard characters in vignettes for his drawings. Spooky and fascinating all at once.

The house continues to inspire art, fast forwarding James’s world into the 21st century. James Castle House has a residency program for artists, curators, writers, performers and other creatives. The onsite studio-slash-living quarter is pretty groovy looking, I might add. Artists spend a few months working in response to Castle’s art, home and collections. The then current artist Keiran Brennan Hinton, whose practice was wildly suited to the James Castle House, let us into his/Castle-inspired world and it was great to hear and see his developing relationship to his Castle surroundings.


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