As I was getting this project started I cold-called many artists. However, “cold-calling”, for the most part, was figurative; I sent out emails. In the age of caller ID and digital communication I’ve become much more comfortable sending people I don’t know an email rather than calling them on the phone. An email is something you can hide behind a bit - both the sender and receiver. He can review the email, process it, and choose if, when, and how to respond. And if the person chooses not to respond, well, nothing personal, I suppose. However, Leo does not have email, a website, or even a computer for that matter. He jokes that people have to send smoke signals to get his attention. He doesn’t have caller ID either so he picks up the phone without knowing who is on the other end - can you imagine??
All joking aside, I was very nervous to contact him because I can’t remember the last time I just called someone I don’t know. I had gotten his name and number from Ed Marquand of Marquand Books and Mighty Tieton. When I called Leo he politely listened to my spiel about my project and how I got his name. He didn’t hesitate to respond, “Sure, we can do an interview.” When I gave him the dates I would be in Yakima, where he lives, without skipping a beat he said, “Oh, don’t get a hotel, stay here. We have plenty of room.” When I added that I would be traveling with my sister, “That’s fine, like I said, we have plenty of room.” I just about fell over from happiness. Not only because of Leo’s generosity (I mean, how many people let someone they don’t know stay in their house?) but also because I would get a chance to stay in the famed Adams House.
Although Leo is a well-known Northwest painter he is almost better known for his house, which is a beautiful labyrinth of rooms and art and is constantly changing since he began building it in 1972. Although pictures will never really how one feels when wandering around his house you can see a few pics here Or you can also buy the book on his house.
He is clearly used to people coming to see his house. When Whitney and I arrived he and Noel, whom he shares his house with, were prepared to give us the full tour. He met us outside when we drove up the driveway (his dogs announced our arrival) and spent about 45 minutes taking us around the house, showing us the endless amounts of artwork (his and others), and answering our numerous questions.
Given all of the pictures of his house I had seen prior to our visit I had an idea of what I would see when I got to his house. But really, nothing could prepare me for how I would feel walking through his house. From the pictures I expected something of a museum when I got there. It is a museum in the sense that the house is a work of art, but I expected mostly that it would all be precious and untouchable. While his house and the things in it are precious because they are made and kept with love, Leo encourages interactivity. While he gave me two full walk-throughs of the house, in the two nights and two days I was there I spent much of the time wandering around on my own. He made it clear there was nothing that was off-limits to touch. Even his bedroom is open.
I could fill pages on his house and all of the great things in there, but since a book has been written on the topic, I’ll leave the discussion of his house here. The book is, as one would expect, very beautiful and filled with luscious pictures of his house and artwork.
One of the things I admire most about Leo as an artist is his magical ability to make beautiful things using the most simple materials. Examples include overhead lights covered in butcher paper, exposed 2x4 beams in the ceiling - with the original lumber company stamps - and plywood for the floors. It was a reminder to me that we don’t need expensive and fancy materials to make something beautiful.
Leo is also a master of repurposing and recycling things; he sees beauty in things most of us would overlook. One of my favorite “pieces” in his house is the frame around his fireplace that was made out of an old refrigerator that had been used as target practice and was riddled with bullet holes. I found him out on the patio one morning putting flowers in old soup cans (labels removed) and it was adorable. While he loves fresh flowers and maintains a beautiful garden, he is the only person I have ever seen make silk flowers look interesting and beautiful. There are multiple vases throughout the house that include silk flowers combined with dried flowers and twigs.
While growing up Leo experienced a lot of difficulty with the men in his family. His grandfather never accepted him, he never felt close to his father, and his brothers, one of whom is his fraternal twin, were cut from different cloth. Leo was a small and somewhat fragile child that was more inclined to spend time with him mother and grandmother, from whom he could learn things like sewing, rather than his rough and tumble brothers who were learning to run the family’s cattle farm. He was much happier making snacks for all of the kids when they decided they needed a break from playing around the farm.
Leo is very open when speaking about difficulties he’s experienced with his family. He talked about it with me and he has referred to these issues in other interviews as well. What I find most interesting is that despite the alienation he felt within his own family, the merciless teasing from his brothers, and the pain it brought him, it never stopped him from creating. It never stopped him from learning to make dolls, to cook, to sew, or to make baskets and other crafts with his mother and grandmother. In fact, it seems he was determined to turn it around - beginning with his house. Leo moved his Grandfather’s house (who had passed away) onto his then newly-bought property (in 1972), and used it as a starting place to begin building.
There were many active fires throughout the west while I was traveling. The fires were worse up in Washington and the smoke worsened as we drove north. It stayed with us the entire trip and was at its worst when we were in central and eastern Washington. There are many wide sweeping views in Yakima and despite the damage I knew the fires were causing I couldn’t help but be amazed by how the smoke was affecting these views. It also affected the light so dramatically throughout the day and into the evening. The consequence of this was I felt like I couldn’t get things quite right while I was taking pictures throughout Leo’s house. I took pictures obsessively anyway (I think I took about 200) with a similar spirit I took pictures while at the Grand Canyon - it’s just so beautiful you want to take it with you, so you take as many pictures as you can. But like the Grand Canyon, Leo’s house (and Leo himself for that matter) must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.