The Materialist

The Materialist

The Materialist

August/September 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Leo Adams, Portrait With Dogs

Painter, designer, maker, and master recycler Leo Adams has built and furnished his eastern Washington home from the ground up. All photography by Michael Burns from the book Leo Adams: Art, Home; Photos: Courtesy of Marquand Books, Seattle

Michael Burns

At the age of 71, Leo Adams has earned the right to kick back in the celebrated home he started building some four decades ago on the northern edge of the Yakama Indian Reservation. Sheltered by stands of fruit trees and lilac bushes, surrounded by courtyards, decks, outdoor rooms, and a pool, it would be an enchanting place to do absolutely nothing.

Instead, a recent visit found Adams rearranging rooms, stripping furniture, sculpting his trademark assemblages of dried local flora, and preparing for a group exhibition at his house and a one-man show of his paintings. Once christened the “King of Discards,” Adams is no mere recycler. He has made an art of trolling for detritus and turning it into objects of beauty – a shot-up, rusted refrigerator fashioned into a fireplace surround, tractor-scoop tines that cradle shells and stones, and bullet-pocked propane and butane tanks that look as if they’ve both bloomed forth from the desert and are decaying back into it. Rendered from the cheapest of materials, many of his creations speak to other cultures and eras: A rococo chandelier wrought from metal hop baskets, drawer knobs, and a cut-up muffin tin is festooned with a pinking-shear-edged paper garland; paint-dipped corduroy is twisted into French regency table swags; and plywood flooring has been painted to resemble tapa cloth. Adams mixes materials, epochs, and inspirations in a way that is wholly original and impossible to imitate, and alters our perceptions of rust, decay, and the potential of plywood.

Growing up in Wapato with many of the traditions of your tribe, the Yakama Nation, you were something of an iconoclast: an aesthete who loved art, nature, sewing, and making beautiful objects, while your twin brother was more typical for the time and milieu.
My brother was my father’s best friend, and I was my mother’s companion. She was an artist, and in touch with nature and the spiritual side of things. We would go into the hills with baskets to gather flowers and collect roots to make into hardtack for the winter, and just spend hours creating things together. I’ve always worked with my hands, and I was lucky to grow up surrounded by all these raw materials. It also gave me a lot of time for myself, which is important for an artist.

You were encouraged by your high school art teacher, Charles Smith, who is quoted by Sheila Farr in the book about your house: “From when I first met [Leo] as a senior in high school, everything he touched – a ball of clay, a painting – it was just like he had magical powers: He could just instantly turn it into something great.” Did you continue with any formal art training?
I went to the Art Center in Los Angeles for a year, but I was too fresh off the reservation and got homesick. Then I attended Burnley School for Professional Art in Seattle, thinking I would be a fashion illustrator, but I didn’t really want to be a commercial artist. So I used the rest of my tribal scholarship money to travel around Europe, getting an education in art history. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. I came back with all these images in my mind, and lots and lots of photos, mainly of old armoires and architectural details like arches and doorways. Suddenly I saw the possibilities of how space could be used, and that really influenced how I approached my house. It taught me about scale and proportion – things I couldn’t have learned in Wapato.

Your grandfather, a tribal elder and rancher, favored your brother and basically stopped speaking to you when you were a child. After his death, you moved his house here and purified it with wild roses and African masks, and it formed the nucleus of your present home. So you had the last word?
I guess I did. He didn’t understand me and didn’t allow me into his house after the age of 10. After he died, my father was going to burn it down; it was just this 24-by-36-foot shack, but it was salvageable, and I asked if I could have it. I was working in Seattle, and on weekends I would come out and have these fantastic barn-raising parties with lots of friends – tearing down walls, adding stairways, and eventually attaching the new building. It was completely transformed – you wouldn’t recognize the original building.

Your color palette embraces all these soft, muted tones of cream and gray and beige and brown, and yet it’s not at all bland. It seamlessly connects to the landscape out the windows.
It’s a color scheme I call “dead rat.” Like the Yakima Valley, it’s pretty monochromatic. But I do add other colors, with flowers, mainly, and the paintings.

Looking at your furniture, like this painted tabletop you perched atop precisely stacked pieces of scrap wood, and the cocoon-like wall pieces you make out of weeds and sticks and twine, it’s kind of like Andy Goldsworthy meets Martha Stewart.
Sometimes when I make those bundles – they’re like papooses – I also use old construction materials, like the shingles I tore off my roof. I call this Plywood City. Everything is the cheapest of the cheap. Some of the table bases are scrap wood; others are made from English garbage cans and wheel hubs. The credenza is leftover one-by-twos. And the dining-table top is the same as the flooring, just pressed board. The striped wall is old stained plywood cut up into strips and alternated with brown cedar siding that I tore off the outside. I make the lanterns out of butcher paper and spray them with starch to reveal the texture and keep them stiff. It’s amazing how staining and stripping and bleaching materials can make them look so much more sophisticated.

Your painting studio is upstairs, where your bedroom used to be, and everything is spread out on the floor.
I work on my knees, like a Japanese artist. I apply many thin layers of acrylic paint, so everything has to be horizontal or it will run. I watch the surfaces dry and sometimes I pull something away before it’s totally dry, to create these earthy textures. I’m very influenced by things like lichens and the surfaces of the hills. It’s kind of a wabi-sabi thing.

You have so many art books in the house, including several on Japan. Has that been an influence? And what about your Native American culture?
Both, really. Yakama [Nation], Japan, architecture, all kinds of things. But you know, I’m an Indian who doesn’t paint Indians. I do sometimes paint baskets and things like that, but I’ve never wanted to be an “Indian artist.” I’m so much more interested in the abstractions of things. So I kind of translate the baskets, the beadwork, the textures of the weaving, the colors, and the use of natural materials into something more contemporary.

The house has such a balance of openness and intimacy. Here in the kitchen, you actually cut a hole in the floor to create a conversation pit.
Well, as you know, everyone ends up hanging out in the kitchen. Sometimes I think if I could ever build again, maybe I would only have a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room, and not such a big house with all these rooms.

Could you really have that kind of rigor?
No, probably not. I always dreamt of living in a concrete house in the country, like something by Tadao Ando. But this will have to do.

“Leo Adams: Eastern Light” runs November 2 – February 22 at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington. Deborah Bishop is a writer in San Francisco.