Stroll the pristine banks of the cascading Oak Creek as it sweeps and snakes beneath emerald leaves and across the grounds of L’Auberge de Sedona. It is a crisp Friday afternoon in early February. The sun is starting its slow descent into the western sky as a breeze dances through the vibrant little town of Sedona. Suddenly a single note, deep and clear, rings out into the valley. It rides on the waves of the wind and tickles the ears of visitors who, searching the void around them, wonder where the playfully eerie note has come from and what it signifies. This particular afternoon, the resonant hum indicates the joyful presence of artist Doug Adams. His remarkable handcrafted bells furnish a significant section of Exposures International Gallery of Fine Art on Highway 179, and Doug is there to present the Adams family’s latest works, accompanied by his wife Dianne and their son Ryan.
Whether lured by the banners announcing an artist’s presence or beckoned by the mysterious notes that randomly escape into the atmosphere from behind the glass doors, visitors drift into the gallery. A steel worker by trade, Doug is friendly, down-to-earth, and fully confident in his craftsmanship. He fearlessly and forcefully strikes his masterpieces, simply to hear the different sounds and see the looks of surprise and delight they evoke in passersby. At first glance, the bells are certainly impressive. Though to simply say that Doug “builds bells” feels slightly misleading. Ranging in height from about one foot tall to an imposing six or seven feet, these unique bells, or sculptures, really, instantly catch the eye and tell a story. Standing next to one man-sized creation—topped with a beautiful buffalo skull painted by his wife, Dianne—Doug explains, “Everything is recycled. There is nothing in this sculpture that isn’t recycled. A lot of this stuff is unique to the steel mill, too.”
The steel mill is Nucor Steel. Doug worked there for about 30 years, and it is where he first discovered his love for welding, and, ultimately, his creative outlet. As Doug begins his story, listeners lean in. He speaks with an energy that almost lets you feel that you are the very first to hear the story. “The company I worked for recycles tons of scrap steel a year and they convert it into different usable products. One day I was out in the scrapyard and I found a cylinder.” He indicates the bell portion of the installation before us and explains that it was made from half of a fire extinguisher. “So, I picked up this cylinder that had been cut in half and I picked up a wrench and I hit it. It just resonated and sounded so beautiful; I immediately knew that I wanted to take it home and make it into a bell for my yard.”
It took another 20 years, and Dianne’s encouragement, before Doug would consider making any more. He had brought Dianne out to his house on their first date and when she, already a working artist, saw the bell in his yard she recognized the great potential that lay within. Doug and Dianne will both admit that the pieces have come a long way from that first experiment. “While he was working at Nucor, he was staying late so he could weld together some very rustic pieces,” Dianne says, explaining the progression of the bells over the past 19 years since she saw that first one in the yard. “We took them for our first show and had the most amazing reactions. If you look at how they have transformed over the years, they really weren’t very cool when we first started. But it’s so cool to see where they are today and how they have evolved.” It is masterful how each mundane piece of debris is joined together to become something truly extraordinary, and whose sole purpose is to be enjoyed. Just as beautiful is the love and the teamwork that goes into each piece. While Doug Adams may be the name on the placards, every member of the family will often contribute to the final work. “It’s very collaborative,” Doug affirms while smiling at Dianne and their son, Ryan. “It’s fun to work with these two and get a collaborative effort going.”
Doug explains that while he does most of the welding on the pieces, Dianne and Ryan do the painting and glasswork. The family is constantly exchanging ideas, dreaming up new ways to improve the bells and keep them fresh and original with each new creation. Also, at only 15 years young, Ryan is already constructing and displaying his own bells alongside his father’s in Exposures Gallery. “Ryan has had his work here since August 2017.” Doug says, glancing proudly at his son. “He’s the youngest artist that has ever been in the gallery. It’s really an opportunity for him to be introduced to the art world and to get the gist of what it takes to show and sell and market artwork.” This is even more remarkable when considering the prestige of the gallery. Exposures International Gallery of Fine Art, created and owned by Marty and Diane Herman, has been named the Best Art Gallery in Arizona, and stands among the best 25 Art Galleries in the United States. The 20,000 square-foot space features the works of more than 100 internationally recognized artists. Doug and Dianne both beam as they share their appreciation and gratitude for Marty Herman and the gallery. They gesture at the magnificent works on display and are clearly honored to have been so embraced and accepted as an entire family. Next to Doug’s bells stands a collection of works that Ryan has built on his own. And along a hallway, facing the bell installation, hangs a vibrant collection of Dianne’s paintings.
“Marty really cares about not only displaying and selling art but also about mentoring his artists,” Doug says. “In a lot of galleries, they don’t do that. They just take your art and that’s the end of the relationship. Marty loves all of his artists, and especially Ryan. He’s kind of taken him as his own.” Ryan stands shyly to the side, still getting used to this world of sharing, discussing, and selling his art. He started out as a toddler, painting with his mom and later watching as his dad worked and welded in the shop.
“I went out to the shop when I was really little, but I never really started welding until I was about 11,” Ryan says, standing before his own collection of bells. Each and every one is just as impressive and impeccably executed as his father’s.
All shyness and hesitations vanish when asked to talk about the process. Confidence enters his voice as he explains the coating on the pieces. “We call it an acid etch. It’s like vinegar. And sometimes we use copper plating, then we cover it with automotive clear coat after it’s been rusted.” It is unquestionably clear that Ryan, whose creative genius exceeds his years, possesses the makings of master. Suddenly, our attention is drawn from Ryan when Doug playfully strikes yet another note, this time from a bell that features an old, disabled bear trap. Across the room, Marty Herman smiles a little to himself as he converses with a visitor to the gallery. Dianne laughs and shakes her head at her husband’s antics, and Ryan walks over to join his mom. It is a joy to see and interact with these works, and to converse with the family who creates them. The bells represent the family’s standards, their philosophies, and their appreciation for a little fun in life. Those who have had the pleasure of experiencing the Adams’ artwork will be those smiling the next time a mysterious note reverberates off the cliffs and rings out into the valley.
“ I picked up this cylinder that had been cut in half and I picked up a wrench and I hit it. It just resonated and sounded so beautiful, I immediately knew that I wanted to take it home and make it into a bell for my yard.” - Doug Adams
Story written by Sara Knight Photos provided by Mark Short and Dianne Adams