CONSTRUCTING JAMES CASTLE AT THE URBAN ARTS SPACE OSU:
Yesterday, I went to the Constructing James Castle Exhibit. James Castle was a deaf artist (1899-1977) who did most of his work with found materials. (Soot, packaging, paper, matchboxes etc.) most of his work reflects his life as a deaf man in rural Idaho and his experience at the Gooding School for the Deaf. (1910-1915.) Even though in his day he was labeled “uneducable”; if you look at his work, you know that’s not true.
The first pictures I saw were of his house in Idaho, drawn on matchboxes with soot. The attention to detail was so realistic, from texture to depth, to lighting, that I felt as if I had entered a turn of the century house. Things like drawers, and stoves, old grammophones, were drawn on the notches of the matchboxes so they appear to be open. Also, he paid great attention to doors; (either an as idea, or a physical concept.) so that you could really enter the room and take note of the textures. Here was a man who was really inviting you in: and on the top of the back he’s written “Jim”.
Keep in mind this was mostly done on soot. I have trouble even drawing with a pencil! Yet, a few of his later “Dream House” paintings appear to be in watercolor. Perhaps he had a stroke of luck and found some, and the painting shows his happiness. His work was all done with what he found. There are sections of paper dolls with different expressions, held together by string and molded into human figures with often squared heads. It made me think at first of the Lego exhibit, only more expressive, because it was carefully made out of scraps.
His depiction of the school was most affecting to me. He made booklets out of matchboxes and cigarette packages, paper scraps, that show his daily life there. What struck me was that the depictions of the deaf students were often those short expressionless or sad squared figures, while the faculty was drawn tall, straighter, and with more vivid expressions; smiling faces, glasses, school uniforms etc. Was this how the administrators saw the deaf students? It seems so.
The students in the classrooms (again drawn with soot!) always sat in a semicircle, wooden rough chair vividly depicted. The drawing showed a deaf girl struggling to learn. (she did not look happy.) I marveled at how someone could draw a chalkboard and the classroom with such clarity in soot! Also, again, many of the students were faceless blockheaded figures. One could say that this was coincidental, but in another work called “Knucklehead”, there is a man who’s head is represented by a fist in the shape of the word “dumb” (as in “deaf and dumb.") in sign language. Clearly, this was the “uneducable” and “illiterate” artist trying to demonstrate his frustration with able-bodied faculty through his grasp of colloquialisms.
Castle’s grasp of language went beyond signing, and I also saw that his notes included sophisticated linguistic notation which he may well have learned at the school. Perhaps he was not so uneducable as his teachers once thought! I saw for example in his notes he would phonetically sound out words. Such as: “Ie Zi AI SED” (possibly sounding out “I said.) or “P!D” (Differentiating breaths in “p and d” sounds.)
Other pieces from the school period of his art include booklets made out of cigarette cartons, matchboxes, and different packages, where he would draw in things like the dormitories; a single bed with an enormous window; again, an amazing understanding of light and depth, and again his obsession with doors. In various matchbox pictures, such as a depiction of a country road, I even saw the scribbling of long-division: Was this so he could get the dimensions right, something he had been learning, or both?
That must’ve been because his supplies demanded it, and because he was illustrating his own deaf worldview, and fascination with doors. Several other happier pictures include depictions of his teachers in kaleidoscopic formations. According to the exhibit, one of his teachers had once shown him kaleidoscopes and he became fascinated. Some of these were even on paper! One of them was lined, which probably means it came from the school. Also, James Castle was enthralled by black and white contrast, owing to his medium, soot; particularly in the school uniforms. One depiction shows a student in uniform raising his hand, with headphones nearby. I recognized this as an old hearing test, and Castle had drawn the student in black and white uniform, behind a black gate. I didn’t know if the students were actually separated for the tests, in those days, or if it reflected his fascination or frustration. Perhaps both.
One of the distinguishing factors in Castle’s work is the ability to make art out of whatever he found, and throw his emotion onto his re-creations. Several of his later works from the 60s reveal a much more colorful selection as he began using magazine covers and cereal boxes, and re-created a Valentine’s Day ad with a toy soldier in it. Probably, he could imagine the vibrations of the toy flute, just as he could feel the vibrations in the comings and goings of open and closed doors. I was vaguely reminded, in his later period, of Andy Warhol, though the resemblances probably stop in that they are reflective of the cultural media of the ‘60s. Castle’s from the Deaf perspective. Because of the magazine paper, his re-creations and art probably were allowed to be more colorful; and were certainly more in abundance by the 1960s, and color was no problem. Suddenly, an artist who drew in soot was in full color.
Though much of his work in the exhibit was in that school period, the color productions later on were some of my favorite. The others from the school period show a counter-narrative as well as a deaf life world. (I.e. “Knucklehead” and the hearing test; showing he was only “uneducable” because had a different worldview.) Perhaps once his teachers’ agendas were gone he constructed for himself through his art, a Deaf Culture, and was happier. One sees the counter-narrative disappear and become more representative of (as always.) deaf life experiences.
I’m extremely happy that I got to see all these pieces. It is proof that both a Disability Culture and life experience can be recorded by art. Too often, I think as it is represented in media, we must chose one or the other. Yet, here was a man, who had the ingenuity to both create and represent his world, with only his environment as his palette, and hence is probably not widely recognized in mainstream art today. The idea of Deaf Culture was probably not even recognized in Castle’s time, and he made it himself! There’s no doubt in my mind that he understood that he simply had a different sensory experience. Yet, his linguistic knowledge represents an attempt at understanding the alien speaking world; similar to how I try to understand the walking world through rhetoric and linguistics.
Lastly, if there’s anything that art does, it is to create something beyond oneself, and beyond one’s mortal existence. I felt as if James Castle was keenly aware that his perception was unique. Just as I feel my cerebral palsy is a unique sensory experience. But, to have that awareness of deafness as a social problem rather than a strict medical one, at the turn of the century, is amazing as technology is ultimately the driving force behind increased accessibility and mainstreaming. I can’t speak for James Castle, but think that maybe we can glimpse so of that idea in his obsession with doors. Coming and going: pictures of things like grammophones, or things that he could hear vibrations of, might also have glimpsed the idea that he could adapt to the world.
REMEMBER: Nobody gave him a pencil or paper. He didn’t expect to be famous. He did most his drawings with soot. James Castle found all those things, he adapted the world around him into his art. He made the world see his voice, even if he couldn’t hear. He wasn’t “uneducable”; He wanted people to see. I saw: I was moved by his creativity and brilliance. He constructed his own world. From paper dolls, to scraps of junk molded into soot sketches, James is the Unheard Master of Disability Culture in the 20th century. The exhibit is open until Feb. 24. See it if you can! (PS: Google images couldn’t find “Knucklehead”, although it is a fascinating piece!)
(On matchbox, Side of House.)