By Maureen Tai, 8 September 2020
James opened his eyes to the world and saw things that moved and things that were still. … For him the world would always be silent.
I had the good fortune to hear the publisher Arthur A. Levine speak as a panellist on a Zoom video conference recently and he talked about how he was always on the hunt for “beautiful books.” That term stuck with me, and it was almost serendipitous to see Arthur’s name on the inside front flap of the achingly beautiful and hauntingly melancholic picture book, Silent Days, Silent Dreams. I am a big fan of the Japanese-American author and illustrator, Allen Say (see my earlier review of his autobiographical picture book, Grandfather’s Journey) and I am glad to have had his – and Arthur’s – guiding hands in my quest to seek out picture books about lesser known artists. James Castle was one such artist.
Born on a farm in 1899, James Castle was the son of a postmaster and one of many siblings. He was also born deaf, mute, autistic and possibly dyslexic. One day, as James was playing in the mail room, he discovered pencils. He started to draw on scraps of paper that his parents gave him, and his first studio was the attic where he spent much of his time. Left to his devices as the rest of the family worked on the farm, James would draw on salvaged trash paper, using burnt matchsticks as his pencil. Isolated from his family and ostracised by his classmates, James was eventually sent to a school for the deaf and blind when he turned ten, together with his older sister Nellie, who had become deaf due to the measles. There, James discovered hand-bound books that covered the walls “like gorgeous wallpaper”, but he couldn’t make sense of the words. So he just looked at the books, even drew in them. Sadly, his drawings of his classmates and of his teachers were misunderstood and confiscated, prompting James to run away from school often. By the time James returned to the farm, he was fifteen and declared “ineducable.”
Back at the farm and in spite of his family’s efforts to keep him from drawing, James persevered, using ink made of soot and saliva, and making books from scraps of paper and used envelopes. He drew houses with pointed roofs and windows that looked like staring eyes. He drew rectangular shaped people with impassive faces. He made dolls, farm animals and birds out of thrown-out bits of cardboard and string, and he decorated the walls of his first real bedroom – a converted chicken house – with his artwork. He would draw, and keep drawing, even as his work was ignored by his family and trashed by the neighbourhood kids when they raided his studio from time to time.
James’ nephew, Bob, was the only person who seemed to take any interest in “Crazy Jimmy’s” art. In fact, the self-taught, silent artist made such an impression on Bob that he ended up showing some of James’ drawings to his professor at his art school in Portland. The art professor was astounded. After thirty years of quiet artistic endeavour in his chicken coop, James Castle’s brilliance was finally discovered and revealed.
James’ story is one of resilience, and the triumph of the artistic spirit over seemingly insurmountable physical challenges. When James Castle died in 1977, he left behind more than 15,000 pieces of artwork, having lived life as one silent dream, “which he recorded for himself, and unintentionally for the world.” It was a dream tinged with sadness but I would like to believe that James found comfort and joy in his art, making it ultimately a silent life well-lived.
For ages 8 and up.