BOISE – By all accounts, the works of famed outsider Idaho artist James Castle are some of the most essential American folk art of the 20th century.
The drawings have been featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Collectors have paid up to $50,000 for single pieces, and Castle’s heirs made millions after forming a partnership in 1996 to sell his art.
Imagine being Jeannie Schmidt, the current owner of Castle’s old house in northwest Boise, who remodeled a bedroom in 2010 and found three bundles of his art hidden in the walls. The bundles held hundreds of drawings dating as far back as the 1930s. Not surprisingly, much of the art was badly damaged by water, mold, dirt and rodents – but it was still long-lost work by a major folk artist.
Two years later, a lawsuit and court trial have established that all the art found by Schmidt belongs to the Castle Family Trust. Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail ruled that Schmidt has no claim on the art and must pay back $120,000 she got by selling about 50 of the least-damaged pieces to a New York art gallery. Schmidt has appealed Bail’s decision to the Idaho Supreme Court.
While the ownership question is getting clearer, the question of the discovered bundles’ artistic value is more opaque.
The art has been seen by only a few people, such as those who were in the courtroom during this summer’s civil trial. Until now.
Court records obtained by the Idaho Statesman show every piece of Castle art found by Schmidt – almost 400 drawings.
Most experts who saw the works agree that the damage significantly reduces the aesthetic value of the pieces themselves, as there are already thousands of James Castle’s drawings that were not chewed on. But as a teaching and educational tool, they provide a unique insight into Castle’s work.
“Except for a small handful of fairly complete drawings, which are haunting, lovely and evocative, I would characterize the majority of this find as significant ‘shards’ that offer further, very intimate insights into this talented and singular human being,” said Stacy Hollander, the senior curator and director of exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
“There is so much good (James Castle) material out there already; there is really no good reason to introduce such compromised art to the market,” said Mark Pascale, a curator in the department of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has hosted a Castle exhibit. “It’s not like (Castle) intended the dirt and other damage to be part of the work. The water damage, dirt from the roof … that stuff is hard to remove.
“The work itself is fascinating. … Some of the images depicted in the drawings are rare (for Castle),” Pascale said.
James Castle was born in 1899 in Garden Valley but lived in northwest Boise for much of his life. Deaf and mute from birth, he was a brilliant, self-taught artist who made thousands of pieces before he died in 1977.
He drew with a sharpened stick dipped in soot and saliva. He drew on anything he could find, including milk cartons or matchbook covers, and filled book after book with pictures. He constructed figures from cardboard and string, and made assemblages of bits of paper and other found objects.
Idaho historian Cort Conley has said Castle created so much art that his family threw some of it away or burned it when they moved from Garden Valley to Star and then Boise.
Castle spent much of his life at the Eugene Street house with his youngest sister, Agnes “Peggy” Wade, her husband and their four children.
Castle communicated to his family in a private sign language. He stored his work in bundles and boxes, keeping it safe in secret places, and made it known that he wanted his sister to have all of his art when he was gone, according to court testimony.
It wasn’t until after he died that Castle became a world-renowned folk artist.
His work has become recognized and appreciated internationally since art dealer Jacqueline Crist began managing the Castle collection in the mid-1990s. She closed her J Crist gallery in 2009 to focus entirely on Castle’s work.
During a court hearing earlier this year about the Schmidt case, Crist’s lawyer said the Castle family had been offered $8 million for every piece of art they had left. While there may have been an offer, that deal never materialized, said attorney David Lombardi, who represents the Castle Family Trust in the lawsuit with Schmidt.
Still, it does illustrate just how valuable Castle’s art continues to be. That’s why the discovery of the bundles in 2010 turned into such an interesting story.
The bundles Schmidt found two years ago included more than 330 drawings, many on whatever paper Castle could find, including envelopes, scrap paper, cracker boxes, matchboxes, newspapers and a prohibition survey.
The approximately 50 drawings that Schmidt sold to New York-based dealer Frank Maresca are similar to the rest of the find in that they are mostly buildings, rooms, people and animals Castle looked at every day.
The least-damaged drawings would make for a nice exhibit, Pascale said.
“In spite of the damage (to many of the pictures), it would be worth showing some of them,” Pascale said. “Based on the apparent early dates of this work, it seems to reinforce the theory that he didn’t develop much (over his career),” he said. “He kind of arrived fully formed as an artist.”
The best-preserved pieces are now in the hands of private collectors.
According to court records, Schmidt sold them to Maresca for about $120,000, despite a legal agreement not to sell any of the art as long as the ownership was in question. The gallery then sold those pieces to collectors, and it is unclear how much those collectors paid for those pieces, Lombardi said.
Schmidt had not yet returned any of the $120,000 as of late August, and the case is under appeal, Lombardi said. The Idaho Statesman attempted to contact Maresca but was told he was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
So that leaves more than 300 drawings, some of which are so damaged you can’t even see what they are. A few dozen are in pretty good shape, however. It is unclear if the family will try to have them restored or put them away for good.
Castle’s family members and Crist declined to comment for this story through Lombardi because of the appeal of Bail’s decision.
So did many local Castle scholars and experts, including Kathleen Keys at Boise State University and employees of the Boise Art Museum.
Beverly Kaye, who runs an “outsider” art gallery in Connecticut, told Schmidt that while she was interested in Castle art, she would have to make sure it was Schmidt’s to sell before she would even consider it.