Local folk artist gives old materials new life

By Andrew Simser

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Prolific local artist, Roger Adams, holds up one of the hundreds of pieces stowed away in his basement collection.  © 2015 Andrew Simser

One man’s trash may often be another’s treasure. For Roger Adams this means taking pieces of scrap wood, metal, or fabric and turning it into something new.

What do you do with an old cupboard door?” he asked, “You make art out of it.”

In the 25 years since he retired from a career in business and school teaching, Adams has re-purposed a variety of material into folk-art, a loosely defined style of sculpting and painting that comes in sharp contrast to more ornate fine art. What started off as a hobby quickly has become a huge part of his life since retirement.

At first it was just a few pieces, you know just decorating the house, filling things up in corners,” he said, but soon the hobby would lead him to pursue exhibition.

In the mid-nineties I started getting too many pieces (…) so I took a bunch of stuff down to the State Theater and I talked to the guy who was in charge of the gallery at that time, it was David Brock, I believe he is teaching over at the university, I asked him what do you think? I really got to have your opinion. I asked everyone around there, is it trash, or is it worth doing?”

In his office, where an Adams piece hangs on the wall, Professor David Brock of the UW-Eau Claire art and design department remembered that day Adams showed up out of the blue.

The first time he showed up, when I was working at the gallery, he just came in one day and he had this big box of stuff. He goes, ‘Can you tell me if this is good or bad?’ Or as he put it, ‘Is this good or sh*t?”

They liked it,” Adams recalled of this first exchange.

Adams’ curiosity paid off, and they gave him his first show. Brock would go on to curate three of Adams’ shows at the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.

That sort of stimulated more activity,” Adams added with a chuckle, “Now I got so much I don’t know what to do with it.”

Many folk artists are not professionally trained, and Adams is no exception, according to Brock.

Folk artists are usually people who aren’t trained in a classical sense,” Brock said.”They didn’t go to school to be artists. They’re just, at point, usually later in life, they’re just kind drawn to making things. They haven’t been told that you can’t do something. You can’t use this material, you can’t make it in this kind of way. They just use whatever they can to express whatever they need to at that time.”

Now in his 70s, Adams produces a wide variety of art; anything from traditional paint and canvas to miniature birds. Walking into his home, the wide range of items that decorate his living space is impressive. His own stained glass sits in a windowsill in the sitting room. Tabletops of rich cherry and oak rest upon the burly stumps of local trees, creating coffee and end tables in his living room. Life sized carvings of a dog and a fox, both hand painted, flank the door to his back office. Carved birds of all colors and sizes look down from high above on the homemade cabinetry.

The colors of the wood in Adam’s living room, much of which he had stained and carved himself, seemed to change with the hours I chose to visit with him. Having first visited him during the evening, I was taken aback during my second visit in the late afternoon. As he afternoon sun peaked through the sun-room, it illuminated the wood throughout the gathering space, giving each piece of furniture, art, and wood flooring a rich, caramel color.

A trip through his backyard to a shed tucked along the fence line, reveals the true extent of Adams’ work- the shed is chalked to the rafters with art. Paintings fit on shelves in an orderly fashion, almost like an office filing cabinet. Sculptures find their way out of the nooks not filled with paintings.

While many of Adams’ creations are decorative and certainly aesthetically pleasing, his pieces have often deeper meanings. One in particular — a piece of polished wood that resembles a person in the fetal position, attached to beads and rods that allude to an abacus, leads one to consider the population issue, and its effect on the planet.

Naturalism, conservation and other environmental topics are a common theme in Adam’s art. Aside from the wide variety of animals Adams has carved, he has painted countless natural landscapes, ranging from realist portrait style to more surrealist interpretations of the natural world. Much of the wood he uses comes from discarded tree limbs, or stumps. Much of the metal and other manufactured materials he uses comes from recycled sources; many are still identifiable by their original purpose.

Some of his paintings are framed by homemade wooden frames that still have thick bark attached, giving the paintings inside a different feel than one would achieve from a store bought frame, although Adams was quick to say: The worst compliment an artist can get is ‘Oh. I like that frame.’”

Certainly it is what’s inside the frame that counts, but in the case of these hand-made frames of unprocessed wood, a certain rustic, natural element is added to his art.

It is Adams’ hope that this natural element, along with his depictions of the modern world, inspire others to ponder man’s interaction with the environment.

Adams, along with numerous other local artists, will participate in the Holiday Art Fair, at the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, running from Nov. 13 to Dec. 23. The fair is free and open to the public.

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