AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 09: “A Creative Obession: Materials and Techniques of the Self-Taught Artist James Castle” by Nancy Ash and Scott Homolka

In this presentation Nancy Ash reported on a study of the working methods and materials of James Castle a self-taught artist from rural Idaho conducted by conservators and conservation scientists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   This comprehensive study including visual examination and analytical testing was done in conjunction with a 2008 retrospective of Castle’s work organized by the PMA.   James Castle was born deaf and scholars are unsure of the extent of his communicative ability outside of visual representations as it is believed that he could not read or use sign language.  Castle is known for creating soot and spit drawings, full color drawings and painting and constructions.   In relation to his art it was purported that Castle never used commercially made art supplies, instead using only self-made or found media/ materials.  It was this piece of the James Castle enigma that PMA conservators and conservation scientists set out to unravel.

The first component of the study Ash described was the in depth visual examination in which conservators found it necessary to develop a language specific to the methods and materials of Castle’s work.  An example of this was the phrase “wiped soot wash” to distinguish that a dilute application of a soot and spit slurry was applied with a wad of material instead of a brush since using only the term  soot wash lends itself more toward an interpretation of brush work.  I found this idea of an artist directed or at least artist specific lexicon very interesting in that it likely increases descriptive accuracy.

In addition to the examination of the artworks attributed to Castel the PMA researchers were also allowed to examine the contents of his studio that were donated upon his death to a museum in Idaho.  Within this collection poster paints, colored pencils and other commercial art supplies of school arts and crafts type were found among buckets of soot, sticks shaped by the artist, food packages and other non- “art” supplies.

Analytical testing confirmed the use of both the non-traditional art materials such as soot as well as some of the commercial art supplies found in his studio in the finished artworks.  This was the first confirmation of characteristic components of stovepipe soot and enzymes present in spit in the soot and spit drawings.  Other unique media identified in this study were laundry bluing used as paint and dyes extracted from colored papers by wetting as an ink or paint.   An additional result of this project was the establishment of a chronology for some of Castle’s works based on the date of introduction for pigments such as the chrome oxide poster paint and/or food packaging and advertising slogans or images.

This study and this presentation highlight the complexity of the art of James Castle, an artist who left only his works to speak for themselves and himself.