Finally, my train stop: Downtown Berkeley BART. I make my way out of the cave into the light. As I scoot up the escalator and exit, all is a buzz of people, cars, stores. I feel slightly disoriented and then a strong scent of something sweet causes me to breathe in deeply, and I get my bearings, walk to the crosswalk, remembering there is only one direction toward campus and it’s practically in front of me. When I drive or take trains, and sometimes even when I walk through a street passage that spills onto another side street, I get disoriented—this has always happened to me. It’s those secret crossovers that must be responsible.
When I approach the path, I remember how beautiful the campus is. I walk among tall trees—a miniature forest. There aren’t too many people in this area yet. It’s an overcast day; everything seems dim. As I get closer to the portion of campus that is near the Bancroft side, I see some homeless folk, spread out in different spots, bundled up beside their carts that are loaded with their essentials. It seems they are still sleeping. I feel bad. I walk out further and hear drumming and follow the sound, go up the stairs and see a group of what appears to be young Kyoto drummers. I love the sound and watch for a bit. It looks as though they are practicing because they keep stopping. It must be a wonderful feeling to be among fellow drummers and pound the drums while feeling the combined vibrations in every inch of one’s being, to feel the continuous reverberation.
I continue walking toward Bancroft, cross the street, and head to the museum. There is something about this museum that makes me want to keep coming back. The beauty of its concrete structure, hard gray concrete, formed into a linear cocoon of angles and shapes escalating, opening out to different spaces, where at any point in these viewing spaces, you can see the gestalt of this work of art, that makes me wonder how concrete can be so beautiful—and constructed so solidly to not appear to be worn. This museum has a modern timelessness to it. I love gliding my hand along the smooth concrete railings that aren’t really like railings, rather they seem an invitation to be touched. There are also large windows in a few corners of the museum to look out into a courtyard area, and on this day, the trees are blooming pink blossoms.
Not all of the viewing spaces were open yet, so it would be a shorter than usual visit. I walk into one of the spaces and begin taking it in slowly, looking in glass display cases at what are little booklets with images sketched of houses, land, practical farm type objects; words depicted by squiggly lines; there is also a display showing pages from books themselves, perhaps random, with letters of the alphabet drawn, some have drawings, others have words; there are miniature calendars painstakingly done by hand. I look, not knowing what to make of what I am seeing, trying to find some connection to the artist. I then move on to a section that had one of several biographical plaques that I would encounter throughout.
This was the art of James Castle: A Retrospective. An artist from Idaho, he was born deaf. He used soot and saliva and many of his pieces were done in gray scale. He used materials that were around, and his parents operated the post office, of which many of the materials went to artistic use. As I wound through the exhibit, taking it all in very slowly, reading the plaques, learning more about the artist, taking in his art and the progression, I was moved. He had been sent to a school for the deaf and blind, but the environment did not seem to suit him. It is said that he never learned to read, write, sigh, or lip-read—and it is also said that it was his choice.
In his drawings, he captured the patterns of the wallpaper and floors with precise detail. It is also said that he was self taught and was at it all day, everyday, his whole life—this was his life. And again, all of his drawings were done with soot and saliva, sometimes mixed with water. He also did collage work. At some point he was provided with art supplies, but he chose to work with found material, natural materials. He seemed a rebel of sorts, and I admire that quality. He did things his way, by his own rules.
I am still digesting how profoundly touched I feel after viewing the art of James Castle and watching a video hearing other artists and his family speak of him. To live without verbal language, without stringing words together in sentences and paragraphs, and to take that deep quiet, communicate in the way that he did, and create his own life is beyond words.
Here is a website I came across that shows a picture of James Castle, some of his art, and a short video clip from the DVD video that I viewed at the museum. It is short, but is worth checking out.