Interviewsand Articles


Keep Talking, James Castle: by Susan Schaller

by Susan Schaller, Apr 17, 2010



My 19-yr-old son is enjoying not having an everyday mother, and sometimes pretends he's in a different city from me.  I was grateful, therefore, when he called and informed me that the Berkeley Art Museum was exhibiting the work of a languageless deaf man, knowing I would be interested since meeting such a person changed my life.  I wrote about meeting the languageless, adult Ildefonso in A Man Without Words (UC Press, Berkeley).
   I was also grateful to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, BAM and many others who brought James Castle to us. I read the latest (January/February 2010) BAM/PFA Art & Film Notes introducing me to James Castle, born deaf in 1899 into a rural, hearing family, in Idaho. I read: "Although he attended the Idaho School for the Deaf and blind, Castle did not learn to read, write, speak, sign, or lip read, perhaps by choice."  And, "Castle's fascination with images, postcards, magazines, and advertising flyers - certainly was fueled by the Garden Valley years when every sort of matter and printed paper passed through the family post office and general store. Packaging, calendars, and comics all caught his eye.  He would copy images precisely and then use them in part and whole in various other drawings and handmade books." -Lucinda Barnes, BAM/PFA Art & Film Notes 

   A film by Jeffrey Wolfe at BAM, my next stop, interviewed academics, artists and Castle's family members. Artists compared James Castle to other artists and analyzed his work in terms of various art genres.  There was footage of the old house and Idaho landscape and pictures of James with his family. A great niece described her memory of James bringing drawings to family gatherings and to show every visitor. One relative said the mother did everything for him, allowing him to draw all day.  An old Deaf man appeared in the film, signing that his research showed that "James Castle" appeared on the books of the Idaho School for the Deaf, for five years.  The Deaf man explained that the pedagogy James would have been exposed to, oralism, focused on speech: "his hands would have been hit with a ruler, and he would be forced to sit on them."  In my imagination, I saw the languageless deaf boy gesturing, attempting to ask where he was, why had his parents abandoned him.  The answer was the ruler hitting his hands. I've heard similar stories from almost a hundred Deaf people. The Deaf man demonstrated how speech therapy techniques looked: hands on throats, candle flames to reveal the puff of air from a p and a teacher's mouth inches away from the deaf student's eyes. No comments were made or questions asked about the difference between language and speech, or any inquiry about the consequences of oral deaf education in 1910 (or, indeed, today).
   Jon Yau, an artist/poet in the film, seemed braver than the other speakers, venturing a little closer to the drawings. He found looking at them "incredibly painful." I left the film and ran two flights up to the exhibit galleries to see James Castle's drawings, dolls, animals and many bound books-all made out of scraps of paper, cardboard, string, twine or thread, and painted with sticks, his saliva and soot. 
   At the first stop, a curator's note explained that James Castle had "refused to learn." The many handmade books with comic strips, invented text, codes and idiosyncratic symbols mixed in with copied letters and words told me a different story.  Maybe the boy was saying: "See me. I can make books, letters, sentences like you all. I can talk. Look. See me. Here I am (signature picture at the beginning and at the end of the exhibit). I can talk. I see your talk with books, pictures, words, mouths, hands-and I can do it, too. Watch me, look at me, over here and here. Please listen, and let me be a part of this world." 
   It reminded me of my own children's stories, drawings, dances and noises that often were variations on "Look at me. See what I can do."
   Then I noticed in some of Castle's drawings, the absence of arms or hands or mouths or faces. This can often be seen in the art of abused children, powerless and mute. Learned helplessness or depressive withdrawal seemed more probable than a refusal to learn. Had this boy been screaming for language and for participation in family conversations as had so many of my Deaf friends who grew up struggling to be accepted by hearing families?
   His relatives described someone who brought his pictures to show guests and to family gatherings. I picture pats on the head, but not attention to what had actually been drawn. I often experienced that in England when what I said was ignored or dismissed. Instead, people would turn to each other and say something like, "Did you hear what she said? Isn't that a quaint word?" I remember the feeling of invisibility or the frustration of trying to communicate when I had the "wrong" accent. I wonder how often the little James exploded with anger and frustration at not being heard.
   The next day, I attended Robert Storr's lecture, in conjunction with the exhibit. I learned about Robert Storr and his expertise, studies and interests, and I learned about other artists, art and the study of art. Towards the end of the lecture, I finally saw a glimpse of James Castle when Robert explained that he was attracted to Castle's drawings because he had struggled with dyslexia. He began drawing to make sense of his world. That tiny window closed as quickly as it had opened; James Castle and his stories were placed back on a shelf in the dark for the rest of the lecture.
    I wanted a bigger window, so I turned to my old friend, Dennis Waterhouse who is Deaf and teaches D/deaf adults, some of whom have little or no shared language, like James Castle. [The capital D is for members of the visual culture of signers and lower case d deaf refers to the physical condition of not hearing.] I met Dennis at the Deaf Services Center of the San Francisco Public Library, and showed him some of Castle's books. Dennis immediately recognized this art as the way many D/deaf people try to communicate. I signed to Dennis that I wanted to ask him about James Castle in light of his experiences as a Deaf person and as someone who has worked with languageless students. He smiled with his whole face and agreed to the interview, but warned me that his time was limited.  
SS:  You've taught many people like James Castle.  Does Castle remind you of any of your students?
DW:  I met a languageless deaf adult who used cartoon-like drawings to communicate.  My deaf students often begin conversations by pointing to a picture, drawing a picture, miming/acting out a scene-a picture. That's the beginning of almost all my lessons-my introduction to signs and words and language. We [Deaf people] all use pictures and art to communicate.
SS:  Over decades, you have taught hundreds of deaf and hearing people, how many languageless, deaf adults like James Castle, have you taught?
DW:  (replying immediately): Easily 20, no 30, at least 50!... I don't know. [He throws his hands up and shrugs, laughing.]
SS:  You, yourself are Deaf, and were born deaf into a hearing family. What was that like?
DW:  I was languageless until 6. I remember not understanding anything. My parents sent me to an oral (signing forbidden) pre-school where I sat not understanding anything. [The ASL phrase looks like arrows flying right over or to the side of the head - everything uselessly passing by.] When I was six, my mother dropped me off at the California School for the Deaf when it was still in Berkeley.  I saw the suitcase and my mother getting ready to leave. I cried and hung on to her.  Then I saw my friend, Lon, from pre-school, waved good-bye to my mother, and ran to him. He signed fluent ASL, because his parents were Deaf. Through him and the school, I began to learn my first language.
SS:  Before that, what communication did you have at home?
DW:  My mother had home-signs. I remember a sign of one hand looking like a container while the other hand's index finger raced around in a circular motion; that meant milkshake. She would hold her hands out as if holding a big disc and mouth widely: "hamburger." I remember the wide mouth was always a part of that gesture.
SS:  A cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, Susan Goldin-Meadow, has shown that deaf children who are exposed to gestures-home signing-learn language better, even with a late start, than those who have no visual communication. Would you say that your mother's gestures helped you learn language.
DW:  (before I was half-way through my question): YES!
SS:  Hearing artists are discussing how James Castle learned perspective by himself, and how he played with images-constructing and deconstructing-and his attention to every detail. [Research has shown that in the deaf brain, the part for processing visual information is much larger than in the hearing brain. Leonardo da Vinci said that if you want to see better, learn from deaf people.]
DW:  Deaf people obviously excel in vision, seeing details in details, playing with space and movement and perspective constantly with signing. Visual poetry and storytelling is pictorial and plays with perspective, like close-up on details, then backing up for panoramic views, for example. 
SS:  (following Dennis to the BART, to get in one more question) Have you had students who had such a bad experience with school-were traumatized-that they couldn't learn in a classroom setting, or refused to learn?
DW:  Sometimes, someone is scared or confused or angry. I just start talking (signing & gesturing) "Brrrrr, it's cold, yes? Are you cold?" The student might not answer until after I repeat similar comments, until something engages them. Once there is a connection, we sign, and they begin participating, picking up words, then phrases, then sentences.
Then he was a blurr behind the BART train window, off for a little sleep before another day teaching and talking with the patience and perseverance of a saint. And another day, year and decade, of teaching languageless deaf adults, using pictures and drawings-anything-to sign. He never quits; he keeps on until he connects.  
Deaf teachers, like Dennis Waterhouse, automatically have an easier time than most hearing teachers with deaf students. Many struggle to learn language. Dennis never forgot being left out of language and alone, like James Castle. In 1910 Castle never met a Deaf teacher. Oralism, which forbids signing, had swept the country and replaced all Deaf teachers with hearing non-signers, except in a couple established eastern schools. 
Afterwards, in between lunch and entering my scribbled translations of Dennis's signing, I wandered through the exhibit again. When I had mentioned to Dennis that James' hands had been hit with a ruler when he tried to communicate, Dennis not only nodded his head in an "of course" kind of way, but actually started rubbing the back of his hands as if the sting were still there. The five-year-old Dennis had been hit for gesturing, for being deaf, for attempting to communicate as all children would. (In schools for the deaf based on oralism--that is, speech only--signing is forbidden. In these schools most, or all, of deaf pre-schoolers have had their hands hit when attempting to gesture.) 
     I remember when I first met Dennis Waterhouse at the International House on the UCB campus when Oliver Sacks spoke about his latest book, Seeing Voices.  Dennis stood near the stage, holding and rocking side to side with his 3-month old baby swaddled and strapped to his chest. Dennis asked the neurologist, through an ASL interpreter, a question relating to his deafness and what had he missed by not having language for six years. Oliver Sacks, observing Dennis' fluent signing, immediately responded, "Obviously, not much." The audience laughed and the next person was called on.  
     Afterwards, when I told Sacks I had just met Dennis Waterhouse to find out more about his early life, Sacks confided that his first reaction to Waterhouse's question, knowing how important cognitive and linguistic development is in a baby, was that he had missed everything! And he was surprised and delighted that Dennis Waterhouse had survived what could have been a devastating deficit. Hearing people, including parents, have little or no idea what most deaf children suffer at their dinner tables and schools. 
Looking Again
I decided to go back to the exhibit again to ask James Castle, himself, what he thought of his school. He showed me a figure that had a giant mouth instead of a face. Next to that figure was another with a hand instead of a mouth-a waving, expressive hand. He showed me deaf girls with giant wide eyes and no mouths and himself, a small boy, dark and almost invisible with the same wide eyes and no mouth. A smudge was smeared diagonally across his and the girls' faces. Their clothing was plain without detail as opposed to one other figure in the foreground.  This figure had normal looking eyes, a nose and a shapely mouth. His clothes were patterned and tailored, and he had hands unlike the other figures. Although he had plenty of hair on the sides of his head, two giant, well-drawn ears stood out. He was not plain or dark or just an outline, his clothes had an intricate pattern and were well tailored. 
     James Castle had learned much at his schooling. Although he didn't know that sound existed, he learned about it and the importance of ears. He learned that he was not considered equal to people with working ears. He learned about speech, and a few words, and that his hands would be hit if he finger-spelled or signed without speech. 
     One framed drawing was a tower of three words: still small voice. Castle didn't strike me as someone who refused to learn. He was talking, answering many more questions than were being asked.
An Invitation
I encourage all of you to go and listen to James Castle.  He has much to teach us. You interpret his family portrait where his father has one giant screaming mouth instead of a face, while his mother and sister look normal, and where he has no mouth and no hands. What question is he answering? What story is he telling that was missed by the curators who suggested that he chose not to learn? Look at his many pictures of houses. Houses are often drawn to the side with a diagonal walkway to a person. More of them, however, have no person and the house is front and center with the walkway coming straight to Castle, the artist. Is this a sentence saying, "I want a house of my own"?  Or is it a question, "Why am I not treated as an equal, worthy of a place of my own?"  
     Although he was not allowed to be in the human community, to be a full participant, he didn't stay in self-pity or wallow in victimhood. He decided to be free in the ancient Greek sense, free to be a participant as fully as possible. He was not free from the oppressive prison of languagelessness, but he chose to participate as well as he could. He couldn't use his mouth to speak, but he used his saliva to paint his stories. His hands were hit with sticks when he tried to gesture, so he picked up a stick to express himself.         
     Wittgenstein wrote: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." James Castle's world was unimaginably limited by not being exposed to signing as a baby, toddler or young child.  I have met languageless, deaf people whose lives are lived as if in tiny, windowless closets. Castle freed himself by expanding his life beyond a shared language. Drawing giant assertions of equality, becoming a participant in spite of the lack of invitations to do so, with spit, soot, a stick and scraps of trash, James Castle shows us how limitless the human spirit can be. See for yourself as Kenneth Baker [SF Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2010] saw: "Castle's drawings restore meaning to the depleted critical cliche of art making as a process of self-creation."  Listen... James Castle is talking.   
Susan Schaller ( is the author of A Man Without Words, about the journey of a languageless adult to language and the human community.  She is currently finishing Helen Keller's Mirror, Self without Language.  Also, her version of Hansel and Gretel will soon be published by ASL Tales.  


About the Author

Susan Schaller is the author of A Man Without Words and translates American Sign Language.


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