Arizona ArtBeat: “Soot and Spit”

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The Arizona State University School of Theatre and Film is bringing to the Valley “Soot and Spit,” the story of artist James Castle, who was born deaf. He used materials at hand to create art, including soot from a woodstove mixed with saliva. The production brings together deaf and cognitively-challenged actors to illuminate the life of the self-taught Castle, who’s worked paralleled the art movements of the 20th century, although he worked isolated from the art community in a small Idaho town. The production is directed by New York artist Kim Weild, who will talk about “Soot and Spit” on Arizona Horizon.

Ted Simons: ASU school of theater and film is presenting the world premiere of "Soot and Spit." It's the story of artist James Castle who was born deaf and expressed himself artistically by using materials at hand, including soot from a wood stove mixed with castle's own saliva. The stage production itself is unique in that it brings together deaf and cognitively challenged actors to illuminate James Castle's life. The production is directed by New York artist Kim Weild who joins me to talk about "Soot and Spit." Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Kim Weild: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: Who is James Castle?

Kim Weild: An artist, a man who lived his whole life in Idaho on three successive farms with his family. He was born prematurely, deaf, and he didn't walk until he was about years old. He never learned to sign, he never learned to speak. He never learned to write. At the age of 11, he was sent to the Gooding school for the deaf and blind in Idaho. And he created a world that through the materials at hand, that he drew with the soot from the Woodburning fireplace and his own spit.

Ted Simons: I'm fascinated by outsider art in general. This sounds like outsider art personified. We saw some of the examples of what he was drawing there. Was this someone who had to draw, or who drew and saw that he could do -- Where -- Where did the need to create art, do you think, come from?

Kim Weild: Communication.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Kim Weild: I think. He was prelingually deaf, which meant in not hearing and being in a family where no one signed, it was his way of communicating -- There's a story that his parents to keep him occupied gave him some paper and pens, they ran the general store, so there were people coming in, and materials like a sears and Roebuck catalog, he was seeing these pictures, and fascinated by them. And also as someone who has a brother who's deaf, my brother, before he learned to sign, communicated with my parents through drawing. So in the time that I've spent looking at castle's art and studying it, and it's extensive because he created over 20,000 works of art in his lifetime. It's extraordinary. There's repetition, but through the repetition he's really trying to get at something. And his work becomes a kind of historical document.

Ted Simons: To that extend, I've read, and we're seeing these examples here, they're instantly interesting when you look at them. I can't explain why. They're just interesting. But it sounds like he kind of parallelled th century art in a way. I've read that about him. Can you explain that?

Kim Weild: I'm not an art historian, nor am I an art critic. There are people much more qualified to answer that question than I am. But what he did was he was making art as we keep saying with the materials at hand. He was using the soot, spit, he was making his own tools, paintbrushes, from sticks. The story goes that when he was sent to the school where he was there for five years, head master -- The head master told his family he's never going to learn to sign. But what you have to do is figure out a way to make him sign. So take away all of his artist tools, and James said, I'm going to do my own thing. I'm going to communicate in my own way. Paralleling 20th century art, if you look at the work of people like Robert Rauschenberg, or the materials they used, they were also seeing that anything was viable in terms of material.

Ted Simons: So in found objects --

Kim Weild: found objects.

Ted Simons: It did become -- He's out there in Idaho doing this on his own,

Kim Weild: yes. That's the remarkable thing. It seems like a Zeitgeist.

Ted Simons: Did he realize?

Kim Weild: No. No, no, no.

Ted Simons: Did he even know other people were very interested in his art?

Kim Weild: Eventually, yes. He has a nephew who studied art in San Francisco, who eventually brought his teacher to come and look at his uncle's work. He knew that his uncle was creating something very special and extraordinary, and also related to the artists -- To the art movement that was happening. And through that, he started to understand the people were interested in his work. He also took great pleasure, if he showed you a work of art, and if you liked it, of course it made him happy. If you didn't respond well to it, he never showed you another piece again.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Wow. That's -- And we're seeing some of the found art objects. OK. Let's get now to the play, which tells his story, but tells his story with some special actors. Talk to us about that.

Kim Weild: Charles me, the playwright, has written into this script a chorus of six performers with Down's Syndrome. And in part, he's getting at the outsider, also the lead actor is profoundly deaf, and we're partnered up with a company called -- A local company, detour company theater, that I would say part of their mission is radical inclusion. So they bring in artists, actors, performers from all over the area who are differently abled. The artistic director, Sam, is actually graduate of ASU, she started this company about years ago. We knew that we were going to need differently abled performers, so we went to Sam and detour and asked them to partner with us. I went and I saw their production of Oklahoma, which was terrific, and talked extensively with Sam, and Rebecca, her associate, and figured out which performers would probably excel and succeed in this type of piece, which is a musical, but it's a very different kind of musical from the traditional kind of -- Like Oklahoma.

Ted Simons: As far as working with these folks, talk about the challenges, talk about the difference between this and your standard community theater.

Kim Weild: I actually don't see a difference.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Kim Weild: The detour actors are extraordinary in that they come into the room, excited, hungry, eager to work, professional. They bring themselves completely to the work. They have taught the ASU actors a terrific acting lesson about being in the moment. They're not able to lie. And if they're in a scene and they're acting with someone and the actor isn't up to par, and they're not in the moment with them, they're not going to get a response that is going to be meeting what -- You know, they're being given. So it's -- They also -- They have this boldness about them that brings -- I don't know, they light up the room. They just light up the room, and they are -- We miss them when they're not with us. They complete the piece.

Ted Simons: Isn't that -- Let's talk real quickly, a couple minutes left. What story is the piece telling?

Kim Weild: The story is about James castle's triumph of the spirit. The need for communication, perseverance, love, it's very much about love. Without his family and the love of his family, how they set him up and made it possible for him to do what he did which was basically attend to his art all day long over the course of 70 years, what was created was this incredible oeuvre of art that's unlike anything -- He worked in five different mediums. It's unlike anything I've ever seen.

Ted Simons: It sounds like this play is going to be unlike anything a lot of folks have ever seen.

Kim Weild: I hope so.

Ted Simons: Tell us where and when.

Kim Weild: It's at ASU's Galvin playhouse, it opens next Friday, April 5th. The Friday April 5th and the 6th are fully interpreted as well as the 12th and 13th, but it's also captioned the whole time. So it's fully accessible. And performances are at 7:30, and Sunday I believe is at 3:00.

Ted Simons: All right. It sounds like a very rewarding enterprise here. Good luck on the production.

Kim Weild: Thank you.

Ted Simons: And thank you so much for joining us.

Kim Weild: thanks for having me.

Kim Weild:Artist, New York;

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