Monday, July 9, 2012

Boise Art Educator Pushes James Castle

Artist James Castle at the Heart of Boise State Art Professor’s K-12 Curriculum Project
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Posted By Kathleen Tuck | Jun 28th, 2012 - 8:56 am | Posted In: College of Arts & Sciences, Top Story

Albertsons Library Special Collections

Art educator Kathleen Keys firmly believes that no Boise State art education student should graduate without an understanding and appreciation for Idaho self-taught artist James Castle. She’ll be even happier when K-12 students learn the same lesson.

Castle, who was born in Garden Valley and lived as an adult in Boise, worked almost solely with found materials salvaged from items such as mail, food boxes, labels and magazines. He drew using a mix of soot, charcoal and saliva and fashioned tools from sticks and other objects. During his lifetime, only a handful of people recognized the brilliance behind his work. Since his death in 1977, his art has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

Keys is so inspired by Castle’s work that she is taking a semester sabbatical to coordinate with educators across the state to develop curriculum for K-12 classrooms. The James Castle Curriculum Project is being funded in part by an $8,465 grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

“I believe that critical and creative engagement with the history of significant artists and artworks that explore what it is to be human is especially important for inspiring innovative ways of thinking about and being in the world,” Keys said.

Keys first became familiar with Castle in about 2004, and her interest was further piqued by a Boise Art Museum exhibition in 2005. BAM has the largest body of Castle’s work in a public collection. In addition, representation of the Castle estate is overseen by Boise’s James Castle Collection & Archive (formerly the J. Crist Gallery).

Keys soon began incorporating Castle’s history and innovative techniques into her art education courses at Boise State, where students received it with enthusiasm. But as an art educator, she kept thinking there should be more resources available.

“Castle’s trajectory — his national and international renown — has really taken off over the last several years,” she said. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a substantial collection, and along with loans from BAM, the James Castle Collection & Archive and other public and private donors, organized and toured “James Castle: A Retrospective” in 2008-09. Additionally, the American Foundation for Self Taught Artists produced a documentary titled “James Castle: Portrait of an Artist” in 2008.

While museums such as those in Boise and Philadelphia often incorporate important artists like Castle into their education components, these high-quality units tend to be limited in their reach after the exhibitions close. And with most experts on Castle’s life and works living in the Treasure Valley, it seemed logical to Keys that a far-reaching curriculum should be developed right here in Idaho.

Keys proposes to create curriculum that will explore Castle’s “life, creative practice and extremely imaginative, innovative and prolific body of artwork, and thus the ways that [he] artistically made sense of the world.” Ideally, the results will then be published in a book or online.

While collaborative methods of developing curriculum are not uncommon, Keys will widen the scope to include several groups of artists and educators from across Castle’s home state. She’ll spend the fall 2012 semester organizing teacher development workshops to explore the major themes in Castle’s work, including the importance of place and his creative use of materials, and then facilitate a continuing process of collaborative curriculum development with interested partners and participants.

Keys hopes this work will eventually lead to in-depth curriculum offerings on other significant artists. By keeping the appeal broad, she also believes the final product will be of value to educators in other cities and countries who are interested in bringing self-taught artists into their teaching and learning environments.

“Material about James Castle’s work is always well received by university students,” Keys said. “This is fascinating content to take into their teaching lives.”

If you are interested in learning more about, or participating in, the James Castle Curriculum Project, contact Keys at

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