Preservation begins at Idaho home of artist James Castle

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Posted: Nov 22, 2015 5:53 PM
Preservation begins at Idaho home of artist James Castle

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho home of James Castle, much like his artwork, is easy to miss at first glance.

Tucked away in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Boise, the century-old home sits idle and vacant. But inside, officials working to restore the self-taught artist's residence say there is much more inside the aging framework than meets the eye.

"Anything with a print is potentially part of his story," said Byron Folwell, an architect and public artist working on the renovation project. "Down to even the patterns on the floor, his surroundings were part of his artwork, which means we have to be careful about everything we do."

Castle's collections have travelled to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and across seas to art galleries in Tokyo and London.

But while the international art world has long admired the artist, his home — located on Castle Drive — nearly missed the opportunity to become just as well preserved as the rest of his collections.

That's why the city of Boise is currently in the middle of a massive restoration project to preserve the celebrated artist's home site and give more opportunities for the public to learn about the native Idahoan. Earlier this year, the city bought the Castle house and grounds, which includes the artist's bunkhouse.

"This is a symbol of making do with what you have," said Rachel Reichert, community relations manager for the Boise Department of Arts and History.

The project has been painstaking and tedious. Anything from a pattern on the ceiling or designs on aging wallpaper are possible forms of inspiration for Castle's work, essentially making the entire property a living art piece.

Bags of paper confetti found in the ceiling and walls have been collected to be sifted through and potentially cataloged. Empty matchbooks discarded in a hole by the floor match those in some of Castle's drawings, Reichert said.

Castle was born in 1899 and died in 1977. Born deaf and mute, the self-taught artist's drawings were made with a sharpened stick dipped in saliva and soot scraped from a woodstove. Isolated psychologically and geographically in what was rural Idaho, Castle's work expresses details from everyday life in the West that draw from both reality and the imaginary.

He extracted dyes from pulped paper with water. For canvases, he used packaging materials, milk cartons and newspapers. He incorporated scraps of sticks, calendars and strings, similar to fellow contemporary artists Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg, although it is unlikely Castle ever knew about them or their hodgepodge techniques.

"His work paralleled the development of modern art, but what he was doing was on his own, without the influences of others," said Jacqueline Crist, managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archives. "Art is driven by the development of humankind. Wherever you are, if you are connected, you are going to express it in a universal way. That's what he did."

The city's plan is to transform the home into a space for art exhibitions and offer an artist-in-residence program by 2017. The majority of the main residence will be largely gutted, with the exception of preserving Castle's small sleeping porch and any key details.

A tiny wooden bunkhouse — where Castle spent most of his time creating his work — will also be restored. Layers of wallpaper, cardboard and newspaper line the interior, which means the city and architects involved in the project must decide how much and what kind should be displayed.

The crew is navigating the homesite with no easy answer on the best way to express the artist's intention. Instead, it will be parsed together, like Castle did, using the clues left on the site.

"Castle drew this (bunkhouse) space almost 30 percent bigger than what it is by pushing the walls out, because that's what the brain does in confined areas," Folwell said. "This will be the trickiest part to restore it how he saw it."