My Grandfather

Lewis G. Adams

A Portrait of Creativity and Generosity


Handmade Brushes | 9″x12″ | Oil on Linen

These handmade brushes belonged to the most influential person in my life, my grandfather Lewis Greenleaf Adams (1897-1976). Grandpa was an architect, artist, loving husband, and humanitarian. His life was a wonderful mixture of artistry, athleticism, humor, compassion, frugality and generosity. He was a one of the finest people I have ever met. Just days before his own passing I confided to my father that Grandpa was my hero. Dad, with a soft knowing grin, said, “Pop was my hero, too.

My father Richard and aunt Lois in 1927. Painting based on a photograph by Lewis Adams.

Born in 1897 on his grandparent’s estate in Lenox, Mass, he was raised in Lawrence, NY in a home designed by his architect father, William. He was educated at Groton boarding school, then Yale University where he was proud member of the rowing crew. (He rowed his single shell until the year he died, even after having a lung removed while fighting lung cancer.) After Yale he was selected as one of seven American students invited by the French government to attend the graduate program in architecture at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris. He and his new bride, Emeline, moved to Paris in 1922. My father, Richard, and his sister Lois where born in France during their years in Paris. After receiving his diploma from Beaux-Arts they moved to New York City where Grandpa became a successful architect. He designed many private homes and major buildings throughout New England including the New York City Episcopal Church Center, Trinity Church Manning Wing, structures at Brooks Academy and Yale. One of his last projects, and the one dearest to his heart, was the Blue Mountain Museum in the Adirondack mountains. He loved to design beautiful places that were welcoming and a joy to experience. He was at his happiest visiting construction sites and getting his hands dirty.

Four Adams generations in 1947 at the family camp near Tupper Lake, NY. L to R: My grandfather Lewis, great grandfather William, father Richard holding my older brother Jim.

Although my family lived in Los Angeles, we spent many summers with my grandparents at the family camp on a private bay in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. We called the camp “Tupper” after the nearest town, Tupper Lake. It was built in 1916 by my great grandfather William Adams.

Cousins at Tupper, watercolor by Lewis G. Adams

The main house, three bunk houses – each with a companion outhouse – and a boat house were connected by forest paths soft with a spongy thick layer of fallen leaves. Tupper could only be reached by boat and never was not modernized from its rustic 1900s beginnings, with no electricity, no gas, no telephone. Meals were prepared on a wood burning stove. Water was fetched from a well. We read and played cards by the light of kerosene lamps. Hand-cranked Victrola with 1920s and 30s clay records provided musical entertainment. We used boats and canoes to explore our private bay. Forest hikes, playing horse shoes, making art, conversation, and reading kept us occupied when not swimming or boating. Grandpa was a skilled watercolor painter usually painting when he was away from the city. The Handmade Brushes were among the tools he used.

Lake Scene, watercolor by Lewis G. Adams

As a child at Tupper I assumed that clearing the paths of fallen branches and other general repairs were jobs much too important for a child. Grandpa knew better. Our conversation was short. “Grandpa, a tree fell across the path.” With a grin and kind eyes Grandpa replied, “You know where the saws are, how to use them, and where to stack the wood to dry when you are done.”

As Tupper “March of the Tin Soldiers” plays on the Victrola as Grandpa leads a parade of grandsons. I am second from end of the line.

The only job that Grandpa reserved for himself was rebuilding outhouses. Every once in a while one burned down. Instead of flushing we sprinkled ashes gathered from the kitchen stove and fireplace. One of our chores was to inspect the ashes for live embers before we replenished the outhouse ash boxes. On very rare occasions a hot ember hid from inspection with predictable results. Grandpa would laugh off the catastrophe and in a good day’s work this sophisticated New York gentleman would build a finely crafted new outhouse.

As practical as he was creative, he was also as generous as he was frugal. When I was in my teens he was very unhappy to have wasted $10 to develop a roll of photographs I had taken. He was justified. They were terrible. After a short scolding he patiently taught me how to properly frame and compose a picture. A lesson that has stuck with me.

His generosity was dramatically demonstrated when he rescued an artist from the certain end of her creative career. Michiko, was the marionette maker for a puppeteer troupe booked to perform at a children’s theater festival my father produced in Los Angeles. Michiko’s were no ordinary marionettes. Every joint in the body including the fingers were articulated with a multitude of strings requiring at least two people to control the marionette during performances.

Los Angeles was supposed to be a short stop on her troupe’s world tour. Shortly before arriving in L.A., driving alone on a narrow mountain road in Peru, her car careened off a cliff. Her partners found her several hours later severally injured with compound fracture of her right upper arm along with several broken bones in her wrist and hand and nearly dead. Although a local clinic saved her life they did not properly set the bones. By the time she arrived to our home a few weeks later she was extremely ill with her arm still broken and horribly infected from her shoulder to finger tips. My parents took her to an emergency room where the doctors recommended amputating her arm. Immediately my mother contacted Grandpa and told him Michiko’s story. He insisted that Michiko be taken to UCLA Medical Center and have them save her arm. He would cover the medical and rehabilitation expenses. The doctors did a miraculous job arresting the infection and repairing the fractured bones. She endured a series of surgeries and rehabilitation to restore movement in her arm and hand. During that time Michiko lived with us as a member of our family and called our parents “Mom” and “Dad”. , After several years she recovered more than ninety percent of the movement making it possible to start a new career building intricate puppets and special effect props for the movie industry.

Grandpa’s acts of generosity and compassion, and there were many, never came with fanfare or public recognition. To him, doing the right thing was natural and a private concern.

The precious objects in “Handmade Brushes” were important to my grandfather and now dear to me. These are the brushes he used and the teal wooden box still holds some of his drawing tools. The peeled clementine, which I often use in paintings, is my symbol for the life giving energy that transcends time and place when we encounter the best of our past.

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