May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Boise, Idaho


Soot and saliva on found paper, bound with string

12 x 10 3/16" (closed)

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Thomas Isenberg, 2001.32.1

Photo by Gavin Ashworth

James Castle (1899-1977)

Handmade Book

James Castle’s deafness is somehow perceptible in the evanescent, smooth, and subtle surfaces of his compositions, leaving an apparent silence. Illiterate, he also never adopted conventional means of communication, neither titling, dating, or commenting on his artworks, foiling our attempts to establish a chronology and a comprehensive evolution in his practice. Firsthand accounts describe his focus and inventiveness when it came to conceiving his own artistic tools and techniques. He refused to use typical art materials when they were offered; he drew with soot—dampened with his saliva—from the family stove on discarded envelopes and other paper goods that he picked from the post office and general store his parents managed out of their residence in rural Idaho. Castle’s distance from the influences of established culture led him to treat aspects of society in isolation, rather than as part of an implicit structure. Developing his own unique communication system and visual vocabulary, he was thus able, especially in his handmade books, to expose the gap between sign and signified—we are shown scraps of words, rearranged letters, scribbles imitating text, linguistic clues. Therefore, he seems to express that a meaningful language is the product of conventions. The present album is made up of fourteen pages from recycled envelopes, showing original postmarks and return addresses. The sheets, sewn together with string, are cluttered with thumbnail sketches reminiscent in scale of postage stamps, illustrating small scenes of interiors, portraits, religious images, and family snapshots.

Valérie Rousseau, “Handmade Book,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.