Leo Adams: Ever-changing homescape

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By Melissa Labberton

Photos by Sara Gettys

Leo Adams, Yakima’s foremost visual artist, spends almost as much time redecorating his unique home on the Ahtanum Ridge as he does capturing the beauty of the Yakima Valley in his paintings. In fact, it’s difficult separating the talented artist from his house, an amazing amalgam of recycled materials, found objects and a vast array of original art.

Adams grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation. His late father, cattle rancher Harvey Adams, served as a tribal councilman for 30 years. Adams’ Native American roots have definitely influenced his paintings, especially his stunning landscapes that reflect the colors of Eastern Washington’s desert terrain. That same heritage resonates in the way he accessorizes with indigenous plants, flowers, dried weeds and Native American stone implements. He uses a natural color palette — soothing gray, brown and taupe — for his home’s décor too.[slideshow id=20]

“I’ve always been an artist since I was young,” Adams said. When asked if he ever dared redecorate his family’s home, he said no and quickly added, “When I finally got my own bedroom, I was always rearranging that. I put my own artwork up and recolored the walls.”

Adams credits his Wapato High School art teacher, Roger Berghoff, with teaching him drawing, painting and commercial art, and local artist Charles Smith, who also taught at Wapato High, with opening his mind to more modern, “free-thinking” art. He clearly remembers selling his first painting at age 18: a horse and hound hunting scene, for $150 to a family in the Lower Valley. This marked the beginning of his professional career.

After graduation, Adams studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and the Burnley School (now the Seattle Art Institute), where he focused on fashion illustration. In 1962, through the generosity of the Yakama

Nation, he traveled abroad and spent a year discovering the art and architecture of Europe’s great cities. This amazing trip opened his eyes to the possibilities of a career in visual art and also planted the seed for the kind of house he wanted to build someday.

After returning to the Seattle, Adams launched his painting career in earnest, but the call of Eastern Washington brought him home to Yakima.

In the early ’70s Adams purchased 40 acres along Ahtanum Creek on the northern border of the Yakama Reservation and moved his grandfather’s cabin to the property. He hired V.K. Powell Construction to frame the house and install the electrical wiring and plumbing. Adams was so taken by the size and scale of the great houses he’d seen in Europe that he insisted on high ceilings (10-18 feet), with plenty of room to display his large canvases and a living space that could comfortably accommodate entertaining family and friends. Finishing the interior of the house was up to him, and the process challenged his imagination while sharpening his carpentry skills.

Over the years, Adams’ unquenchable desire to create has spilled over to the ever-evolving interior of the home. Dubbed “The King of Discards” by a 2003 Seattle Times article, Adams just can’t seem to resist fashioning masterpieces from what most people would consider cast-offs only suitable for the landfill.

A perfect example is the exquisite, expensive-looking floral arrangement displayed on the kitchen table. Upon closer inspection it reveals sticks, dried weeds and silk flowers contained in a white enamel washbasin, shot up with bullet holes. Adams found the bowl in a field by his house. With economy and style in mind, he used old Army blankets for the wall coverings of his bedroom, mainly because he liked their subtle color and texture. The dramatic striped walls and elaborate window moldings of his living room mimic the stonework of an Italian villa. He created the effect on the cheap by pickling and staining pieces of plywood for the walls and cleverly arranging 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s to imitate Romanesque moldings.

Adams’ friendship with late Seattle designer Jean Jongeward influenced his love of Asian art, whose Oriental themes are evident in many of his paintings and accessories. His recent acquisition of some cyclone fencing led him to hang it from the ceiling of the living room in the shape of a kimono to make a unique room divider. The dining room’s faux crystal chandelier is nothing more than two 1920s hop baskets tied together and embellished with delicate scalloped circles of paper strung on pieces of string. Also Asian-inspired are the simple, handmade butcher paper lanterns that hang throughout the house.

While Adams continues to work on commissions and frequently shows his work in regional art exhibits, he’s currently focusing on getting his house ready for the Larson Gallery Guild’s Tour of Artists Homes & Studios on May 15. This annual event gives the public a wonderful opportunity to visit Adams’ remarkable house, view his latest paintings and experience his creative genius.

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