BOISE, Idaho — The effort to preserve the home of famed Idaho artist James Castle is moving underground.
Archaeologists with the University of Idaho have started excavating around the artist’s century-old Boise home to discover new clues into Castle’s life.
“It’s a chance to basically reclaim the history of this place,” said Mark Warner, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who is leading the team of students and alumni on the dig. “There’s history above ground, there’s history below ground, and it all comes together to create a really rich narrative.”
Castle was born in 1899 and died in 1977. Born deaf and mute, the self-taught artist’s drawings were often made with a sharpened stick or nail dipped in saliva and soot scraped from a woodstove. He relied heavily on materials he found around him and even sorted through trash containers for possible art tools. Other times he squeezed saturated crepe paper to produce color.
The Idaho native’s work reflects the physiological and geographical isolation in what was once a rural part of the state. Boise has since become the Gem State’s most populated city, but Castle’s home stands as a reminder that it was once the inspiration for works that express details of everyday life in the remote West — drawn from both reality and imaginary.
The city of Boise bought Castle’s home and property in 2015 and is in the middle of a massive restoration effort to preserve his legacy. The main residence will be transformed into a space for art exhibitions and offer an artist-in-residence program by next year.
Outside of the main home, archaeologists will spend the next week excavating the tiny wooden bunkhouse. The small structure was where Castle spent most of his time creating his work, meaning any minor object uncovered could reveal a significant insight into his world.
Inside the bunkhouse, layers of delicate wallpaper, cardboard and newspaper line the interior as students crouched on their hands and knees Friday. They carefully brushed dirt into buckets. The dirt will be gently sifted and categorized before moving on to the next.
“We found darker soil in one corner,” said Caroline Herritt, currently in her second year of graduate school at the University of Idaho. “That might mean there is some feature we haven’t found yet. We have to keep going to find out.”
As of Friday, the team had already found a wadded up bundle of material that was could have been used by Castle to apply his soot concoction.
“We’re looking for leftover bits of Castle’s life. That would include what he ate and how he lived, but also maybe his art supplies,” Warner said. “I think we have some of that.”