Considered one of the finest regional art museums in the country, Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery is a well-balanced museum, with collections ranging from art, sculpture, and antiquities 5,000 years old to present-day masters.
And Wendell Castle.
Walking around a corner in the expansive gallery, I could hear a man’s deep voice in the distance. His words were melodic.Their measured cadences drew me into the room where they originated.
I sat quietly on a bench in front of a large screen where his image told me stories of his life, his art, and how The Memorial Art Gallery gave him a shot at showcasing what became a stellar career.
The main message was clear; he was humble. As a young child from Kansas, he didn’t exactly fit-in with others. As an adult, he didn’t exactly fit-in with others, either. Shaped by things around him, Castle took chances with his vision – even though there was no firm promise he’d find success as an artist.
In 1965, a series of events occurred. The Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition was open to both arts and crafts.It was a juried event. Castle won the top prize – a one-man exhibition at MAG. Besides that, the winning piece was purchased, then added to the museum’s permanent collection.
Maybe no one knew the artist was at a crossroad in his career. Perhaps no one was aware he struggled with the decision to be a furniture maker or a sculpture in the more traditional meaning of the word.
But he was, and he did. This event helped make his choice crystal clear.
Wendell Castle Remastered
The show I walked into was an immense exhibit of Castle’s craftsmanship. His specialty was in shaping stackable, laminated wood. He also worked with plastics, veneers, and a variety of metals.
My eyes followed each piece around the room. I knew they were stationary, of course, but it appeared as if they were dancing from one platform to the next, putting on a show for me.
The collection was of smooth brown, black and white slices of whimsy – furniture from another world it seemed. I’d never seen anything like it. I expected them to start breathing, laughing as they talked to me.
Which, I suspect, was the whole idea.
Wendell believed you could take something common and make it – well – uncommon.
I was lucky enough to be in Rochester, late Fall, 2017. I remember talking with Rachel Laber, my contact at the visitor’s bureau. She was so excited I’d get to see Castle’s exhibit during my three-day stay.
Now I know why.
From what I understand, he showed up at every art opening in Rochester. And it didn’t matter if the person was a well-known artist or unknown dreamer. From what I’ve heard, he supported both friends and colleagues. He was a staunch supporter of the art community. From all I’ve read, he was the cool-dude in the room. Everyone wanted to be around him.
Man, I wanted to be around him. Returning to the bench, I sat through the video intended to highlight some of his life once more. I found his voice mesmerizing. I could hear some pain, some longing, some dream in his heartfelt words.
I watched images of him as a toddler, a young boy, and then a man, each one trying to find his way in the world. They were moving and emotional. They struck a chord with me.
Isn’t it what we all try to do here?
Wendell Castle passed away in January 2018. I was sad when I heard the news, and I’d never even met him.
Rochester was blessed, to be graced with such a man. I’m grateful for the few fleeting moments I had inside the walls of MAG, admiring Mr.Castle and his work.
Thank you, thank you for sharing him with me, with the world. We’re better for it.
Castle’s 10 Adopted Rules of Thumb
If you are in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
After learning the tricks of the trade, don’t think you know the trade.
We hear and apprehend what we already know.
The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms it was brought to you.
If it’s off-beat or surprising, it’s probably useful.
If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
Don’t get too serious.
If you hit the bull’s eye every time, the target is too near.
All photos by Theresa St. John