New Exhibit Showcases the Work of a Deaf and Illiterate Artist at the Smithsonian

“Untitled” in the art world can connote the avant-garde, the mysterious or simply the inane.

In the case of James Castle, an American artist of the early-to-mid 20th century, it arises because the creator in question was mute, deaf and illiterate. An exhibition of Castle’s work – all of which is untitled and undated – began at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Sept. 26.

In addition to his disabilities, Castle was extremely isolated in rural Idaho, according to a museum press release. His only window to the outside world was the far-ranging letters processed by his parents, who were local postmasters.

Those pieces of discarded mail, along with greeting cards, advertisements, product packaging and other found paper, were Castle’s canvases. Soot mixed with his own saliva was his paint, applied with sticks, string, and whatever else Castle could get his hands on during daily rummages through local trash bins.

The result is a mixture of faceless portraits of the people around him; pastoral landscapes invaded by mysterious “totems” that art scholars have yet to explain; and colorful, Warhol-esque pictures made from product labels and logos.

Visitor Miriam Doyle, of Baltimore, said she feels she’s not just looking at pictures, but “pondering the little fractions of this artist’s life.”

“At once inviting and inscrutable, Castle’s art gives us access to a world navigated without language, though not the key to unlock it,” exhibit curator Nicholas Bell said.

Doyle added that she was specifically intrigued by Castle’s unusual background.

“I can get a little bit sentimental about … outsider art,” she said. “You can see that these are snapshots or captured moments that are deeply meaningful to [Castle].”

This idea, combined with the total lack of titles and dates for all pieces, results in an exhibit with almost no text placards, wherein the art itself tells a story.

The 54-piece exhibit – the largest public collection of Castle’s work, according to the museum – is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 2015.

writersblocheadshots15Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at

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