educating alice

Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams

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A few weeks ago I visited New York City’s Whitney Museum and became besotted with a new-to-me artist, James Castle. Obsessed I took the following photos:

Perhaps a week later I saw Betsy Bird’s review of Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams, was gobsmacked that this fictionalized overview of Castle’s life was in the works, and eager to get an advance copy. Now I have and think it completely and utterly superb. It is fiction, the text and the art, carefully and respectfully researched. Some have wondered if the art is all Say’s, but I feel confident it is. He writes about his own research, process, and materials in his author’s note and indicates that his wife made the constructions of dolls and birds. There is a solid bibliography. (For more of Castle’s art, check out online exhibits here, here, and here.)

And it is all quite fabulous — the text (a fictionalized memoir of Castle’s nephew) and the art, the hues and viewpoints very much in the style of Castle’s work.

One of my oldest friends is the curator of the American Folk Art Museum so I’ve long been aware of the work outsider/self-taught artists. In fact, one reason Castle’s work caught my eye at the Whitney (along with several others ) was delight in seeing it in such a museum in the same space of more famous conventional artists. Well-known outsider artists include Henry Darger, James Hampton, Achilles Rizzoli, Simon Rodia (who did the Watts Towers), Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Adolf Wölfli.

While I don’t want to make any assumptions about those artists whose lives for one reason or another were outside of the world of art as we usually know it, I can’t help being fascinated by those like Castle who, lacking certain ways of communicating, find others in spectacular ways. What we know of his life — being deaf and never speaking and living on a very isolated farm — makes his work all the more wonderful. Say has absorbed the man’s life and given us a gift to know about him, it, and his art.

Thank you, James Castle and Allen Say, for beautiful, beautiful reveries on the world.

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