Pacific Northwest | December 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 14, home
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Special Arts Issue

The King of Discards
From the old & unwanted, an artist fashions a desert palace

To hear Leo Adams comment on his work, click on the audio links below.

audio The chandelier :24 [193K MP3]
audio The sculpture pedestal :13 [105K MP3]
In the dining room, the table sits on a base of scrap lumber under a charming chandelier made from an old metal hops basket and hundreds of white paper discs cut with pinking shears. On either side hang lights of butcher paper spray-starched into shape. The floors are sanded and washed particle board. "I have dogs," Adams says. "I can't worry about the floors." The foreground sculpture of beeswax and metal, by Don Charles of Bellevue, is an Indian with a chest wound and wrapped knee. It reminds Adams of his father, who had heart surgery and bad knees.

Leo Adams' upstairs studio is expansive, open to a wall of arched windows that fill with northern light. Canvases cover the floor while he works on them. To gain perspective on a piece, Adams sometimes stands on a ladder. He makes his own frames from plywood, cedar and fir.
THE OWNER: Leo Adams, 61. Painter, sculptor, designer. His partner, Noel, lives next door. Liz, a corgi mix, and Tucker, a lumbering lab-Husky, have the run of the place.

THE GOALS: Adams is always asking, "How do I not do the normal thing and make it interesting?" His home is self-made from stuff nobody else wants. Desert discards into art. About 18 years ago, his Yakima-desert house was featured nationally in an article about homes with Japanese influences. It is that. But there's also Italian, Western, Eastern, Indian, romantic, modern, classical, sparse, crowded, dark, quiet and bright. It is all of these things at once. And that is Adams' genius.
In the library, a dining table of sponge-painted plywood sits on a tire rim and an English garbage can. The chairs are a mix of 1920s and Louis XV covered in leather that Adams shoe polishes to replenish. The ball on the table is a papier-mâché piece by the late Dan Haight of Yakima. The creamy piece that recalls a seashell is a terra-cotta work by Erin Hayes, a ceramics teacher at Yakima Valley Community College.
Take the sisal rug in the guest room. It got dirty, so Adams splatter-painted it, and now it resembles an animal print. Do-it-yourselfers, meet your king, and tour his palace in the desert. It's 5,000 square feet of canvas. Adams has been working on it for the past 30 years. It is his unfinished masterpiece. But it's not that it isn't finished, exactly. It's always evolving. Decor comes and goes with age, whim, the seasons. Nothing — like discarded porch posts — becomes bed spindles. Something — like the painted floor of his bedroom — fades into nothing. "I have lots of things to finish," he says, "and when I do them, I change it." In the foyer, harsh outdoor light grows quiet through the corrugated-plastic roofing. But Do Not Try This At Home. White corrugated-plastic roofing would be no thing of beauty in the hands of most of us.
audio The bed :15 [118K MP3]
Adams added his bedroom onto the front of the old cabin. The centerpiece of the room is his four-poster bed, made of porch posts and draped in striped chenille of pink, olive and cream. A cedar ceiling meets walls covered in gray wool blankets that are warm, rich, modern and cozy. The old steamer trunk, next to the primitive Mexican pine chair, was a dingy thing until Adams bleached it pink. He picked up the trunk's pattern in one of the disc pieces sitting on top.
KEY FEATURES: In the early 1970s, Adams brought his grandfather's small farmhouse to his land — 40 acres on the north end of the Yakama Indian Reservation — and added to it, for a total now of 10 rooms (including three guest rooms), plus three bathrooms. An enchanting definition of a work in progress, the house seems alive with the constant evolving. A tour is a process of discovery, the rooms filled with Adams' art and pieces from friends. Influences merge from everywhere and every time. "A 7-year-old kid came out here once and said, 'My gosh, you have a lot of civilizations in your house.' " Sitting in rooms that reach up to 18 feet tall — among the beiges, browns, creams, grays and strong horizontal lines everywhere — is like getting a big, soft hug. "The house is all about the colors of the desert," Adams says.

ARCHITECT, BUILDER, INTERIOR DESIGNER: Leo Adams. "Architect Dick Dunbar did all the elevations, and I have since changed all of it." Adams hammers, saws, drills, paints and sews. It's not just art, or architecture. It's architecture.

COST: Adams is intrigued with the discarded, the handmade, the found. "Everything gets recycled here." He took out a $50,000 mortgage in the mid-1970s, paid $16,000 for the land and $34,000 to have the shell of the house built. Then he finished it on his own. He has childhood memories of the kitchen of the old place filled with women fixing meals for workers bringing in crops. That house is now Adams' kitchen.

QUOTE: "The house looks very much like me, both masculine and feminine," he says. Noel says, "I once tried to throw out these really beat-up bamboo blinds. They were really just falling apart. But Leo found them, cut them up and made them into star ornaments for the Christmas tree. They were beautiful."

The kitchen was once a cabin owned by Adams' grandfather. The work surfaces are galvanized metal, because Adams likes the simplicity of it and he finds stainless too cold. Plus, the metal is inexpensive. The room, and the nearby sunken family room, have a Japanese feel with origami-reminiscent lights of starched butcher paper. The wood table is Mexican, the basket on top, Balinese.

audio Kitchen countertops
:11 [46K MP3]

audio Bleaching the federal secretary
:29 [231K MP3]
Art can be found in every nook and cranny of the house. This federal secretary stands in an upstairs guest room. It began life in dark walnut, but Adams bleached it. The handed-down baskets traditionally were used to gather roots. The weathered wood pieces are beam holders from an old barn. And the white pieces "are plaster things my friend Jerry made when he was at Cornish (College of the Arts)." Adams cares not for label or pedigree; for him, it's all about shape, texture, form and color.
audio Fireplace and cushions :30 [242K MP3]
Strong lines and quiet surfaces carry the kitchen's Japanese feel to the TV room (it's hidden behind cedar and fir sliders to the left of the fireplace). An old hot-water-tank skin pounded into shape surrounds the fireplace. Over it hangs an English metal washtub. The piece on the left is stacked burned-out gas cans joined with twine. The cushions are cut from Chinese rugs and Japanese kimonos. The stone form next to the dried arrangement is the back of a clock.

Visitors enter the house along a walk of pea gravel, concrete and railroad ties toward the porch, constructed of scrap metal and railroad ties. Three brightly colored water fountains, by Adams' friend Ellie Carrithers of Yakima, offer a cheerful welcome, as do some of Noel's plantings.

Russian olive trees and sage hills surround the house. The siding is cedar, but Adams is searching for just the right maintenance-free metal to replace it. Some cedar has been promoted indoors, where it is used to create strong horizontal lines across some of the walls, including those in the dining room.

The library walls are covered in black wool blankets from an Army-Navy store. Shelves are lined with books about art, architecture and design. A chandelier, hastily created last Christmas to play cards by, hangs over the table, a wrought-iron sphere smothered in white lights.
"We live out there in the summer," Adams says of the terrace. You can see why. It's part potting shed, part party center. Beyond the pool and the orchards, the rolling hills of the Yakama Indian Reservation reach into infinity. The rock piece is a basalt crystal sculpture by Jim Amundson. It rests on a septic-tank lid. The cement mixers stacked against the garage are placed there as an art piece. This eastern view is of pear, apple and cherry orchards.

Rebecca Teagarden is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a staff photographer for the magazine.

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