Acclaimed artist thought to be autistic
Self-taught Idaho folk artist’s work now collecting acclaim.
A controversial new biography asserts he was not deaf, but autistic.
James Castle, who died in 1977, had a flirtation with fame in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s after a nephew introduced his art to a Portland art-school professor.
When his family pulled back from the art world after his death, Castle fell into obscurity. Though loved by artists and curators, he was little known outside the Northwest until his sister’s children began marketing his work again in the mid-1990s.
Today he is attracting collectors of both outsider art and modern art, and his work has been shown in prominent New York and Philadelphia art galleries. He was deemed ‘Uneducable’, he was born as the 20th century began, to an English immigrant (his father became a naturalized citizen in Salt Lake City) and an Irish Catholic pioneer, Castle was raised in the secluded, mountain-ringed Garden Valley, about 50 miles north of Boise.
He could write his name but little more. He communicated with gestures and grunts, and spent his adult years in Boise, the ward of his youngest sister after their mother’s death.
Working in the loft of the family’s icehouse in Garden Valley, an old shed in Boise and later a narrow, modular cabin that his sister bought with his art earnings, Castle used for materials whatever he could lay his hands on, which was mostly found paper, soot and sticks.
Castle’s sheer resourcefulness, isolated from the art world and its ideas and materials, is a big part of his allure. The fact a man like this could produce art that is so varied and fantastic in terms of what we think is important today . . . It’s proof that the creative spirit is an inner gift, says Alice Yelen, a New Orleans Art Museum curator, author and expert in the field of self-taught artists.
But it is Castle’s art that most captivates. He’s constantly experimenting with techniques and looking at his environment. He saw such a world of depth in his world, says Yelen. He’s an important 20th century American artist.
Visually gifted: And, says Tom Trusky, who has spent the past 11 years immersed in Castle’s life, he was autistic. In his biography published this month by the Idaho Center for the Book at BSU, Trusky contends that Castle was not deaf and mute as his family and others have always believed, but rather one of many visually gifted autistics the world is gradually coming to know. It’s the most inspiring, astonishing story on earth, says Trusky.
But his assertion of autism in James Castle: His Life & Art is controversial. Gerri Garrow, who cared for her uncle before he died and who now administers the thousands of pieces of art Castle left behind, is incensed. He didn’t know the man. How can you look at a man’s work and be such a brain you know he was autistic? she says. Sandy Harthorn, curator at the Boise Art Museum, says autism never occurred to her when she met Castle several times at the end of his life. But Uta Frith, an autism expert Trusky consulted, believes he may be right.
From the evidence available, a good case can be made that Castle had autism, Frith writes in an e-mail from London, where she is a professor of cognitive development at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. It will never be conclusive, since Castle can’t be directly diagnosed, she says. Trusky, a professor of English and director of the Idaho Center for the Book, began suspecting autism in 1998, after he had been working with Garrow as Castle’s biographer for five years.
He had interviewed Castle’s childhood neighbors, friends, and even an elderly sister, many of whom have since died, and had spent hours sifting through the boxes of art stored in outbuildings. The clues were everywhere, says Trusky. Castle was a head-banger and rocker as a child, and was slow to develop motor skills. Childhood acquaintances would tell of inexplicable rages, Trusky says.
Castle’s art was also persuasive, he says. Castle had a fascination with puzzles, as do many visually gifted autistics, and would spend hours cutting out minute pieces of letters and numbers, simply to paste them down, in order, again. In his later years, he often drew dream houses with herringbone or cross-hatch patterns on the walls and roofs, and he would make elaborate calendars with codes only he could decipher.
Many Castle drawings have strange structures that critics call totems, but which autism experts say could be pieces of structures that he could see fully erected in his mind but chose not to draw. His drawings of a bed from numerous angles – created decades after he was in the room – indicated to Trusky that Castle could mentally levitate, as do other visually gifted autistics, and that he had an incredible memory.
The people Castle knew, he drew as box-headed figures who often lacked arms, ears and even eyes. He couldn’t look at you long enough to get your details down, says Trusky. Many autistics avert their eyes because animated faces give too much information. By contrast, when Castle was copying from a picture, such as the Gerber baby ad or a photograph, his drawings were realistic. This is exactly the sort of evidence that points to autism, says Frith, who praises what she considers Trusky’s painstaking documentation of Castle’s behavior.
Castle’s niece, Garrow, says she, too, has consulted medical experts who adamantly say ‘no’ to autism. She points to her uncle’s gregarious ways, the fact he would rush to greet visitors and bummed cigarettes off of strangers and friends. He also had no trouble meeting others’ eyes, and numerous photos show him looking directly into the camera, she says.
Frith, writing from London, says it has only been recognized in the last 10 years or so that many people with autism are socially interested and gregarious. Avoiding eye contact is by no means a universal sign, and directly looking into the camera is common, she writes. Garrow stopped working with Trusky in the late 1990s, when he began talking of autism. But Trusky didn’t drop the subject. I don’t think I’m nutcakes, says Trusky. I think I’ve got it correct.
Relationships sour: The biographer’s relationship with the dealer who is marketing the family’s trove of art has likewise soured. Trusky had hooked the family up with Jacqueline Crist in the mid-1990s so that Castle’s art, which had been moldering away in unsecure storage, would be protected. The owner of J Crist Gallery in Boise says she’s indebted to Trusky for that. But she’s not happy with what she and the family consider several errors in the book, including Castle’s birth year and whether James was his middle name. Trusky relied on census data. Crist and the family also dispute the number of pieces of art inventoried by the family when they finally looked at all Castle left behind. It’s the constant embellishment of what was already a beautiful story, says Crist. It’s the heavy-handed approach of giving voice to the artist. But perhaps the biggest dispute yet between biographer and the dealer, is over the four books Coey bought for $10 at the estate auction last September.
Trusky is certain they are Castle’s work. The most important of the books, which appears to record Castle’s sister’s wedding, was drawn on pages from an 1880s U.S. history book that carries the name of one of Castle’s aunts. Harthorn, the Boise Art Museum curator who has worked with Castle’s art for nearly three decades, agrees that the books are authentic. Crist, however, differs. This is my business to value and appraise. The majority of the work, I believe, is not Castle’s.
Coey and Bowyer, who first had a clue the works were Castle’s when they noticed the strange drawings and peculiar string binding on the history book, are not worried. The collector who is interested in buying has investigated and is undeterred, they say. Whether they make a lot of money or not, however, they have been assured by Trusky they will get their reward. Says Bowyer: Tom told us we’ll go straight to biblio-heaven.