Garden of Earthly Delights
Gila artist Bill Kaderly turns wood and rocks into fanciful folk-art creations.
by Rebecca Fitch
New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment for many reasons, but none as unexpected as what one finds in the tiny village of Gila, off scenic Hwy. 180. There, in the midst of the desert hamlet, looms a large and conspicuous purple adobe wall with a vibrant neon-green "Gallery" sign beckoning passersby to stop — or, at the very least, slow down — long enough to notice the colorful and playful artwork of Bill Kaderly.
Kaderly, 69, a retired upholsterer from Ojai, Calif., has managed to carve out a niche for himself as a New Mexico visual artist and friend of nature. He makes almost daily treks in the Gila riverbed and nearby mountains to retrieve free material for his art: cottonwood, pecan and willow roots and logs, stones and other material exposed by heavy floods and rains. Most people would simply pass them by, considering the dead wood nothing more than trash or possible firewood. But in Kaderly's hands each unique piece of root, wood or stone has the potential to become a whimsical work of art that one might find in the make-believe worlds of Alice in Wonderland, Willie Wonka or the Wizard of Oz.
"If it can't outrun me, it's gonna become art," Kaderly muses. "Mother Nature actually does the piece; I just finish it for her. If I don't do something with it, the next flood will take it to Arizona."
Kaderly's gallery is filled with "found" art: neon-colored masked wood, stone and citrus-peel figures and wooden sculpted creatures inspired by nature and science fiction. Some of his pieces move, gyrating provocatively to the music of the wind. Other pieces, which he refers to as his "audience," hide behind colorful masks, sunglasses and hats, some with obvious sexual undertones, others impishly smiling or displaying long, red tongues that would make Gene Simmons of KISS fame cringe with envy.
Everything about Kaderly's work reflects his sense of humor and use of color.
"I am a self-learned artist, and by that I mean I have not been taught anything. I'm not teaching myself and I haven't studied art, but I am learning by doing. I always tell anyone who asks that I have an AA Degree — Accidental Artist," Kaderly says jokingly.
Kaderly stumbled upon his artistic abilities after working 42 years as an upholsterer. He did his upholstery work mainly outdoors, as he does now at his gallery. He enjoyed picking and eating oranges from his neighbors' orange trees, and noticed the citrus peels took on a life of their own once they dried in the hot California sun.
"I began playing with the citrus peels, and started making masks — faces seemed to be right there in the dried peels," he says.
The next thing he knew, he had a small collection, which he shared with some friends who were artists, and he was invited to show his work at the local gallery in Ojai. The theme was masks, and Kaderly sold his first piece of artwork made from citrus peels for $75.
"After that I was hooked," he says. "I was told by my artist friends that being a furniture upholsterer was art because it involves color and making things with my hands. I had never thought of my work that way. As for having artistic talent, I was very surprised. It might have been there all my life, but I'd had no chance to explore it until I was in my mid-50s."
Still, he says he has trouble thinking of himself as an artist because he has so much fun doing it. "I have great respect for artists, especially if they are working in their art to make a living for their family."
Having bona fide artists calling him an artist and encouraging him to explore his creative side furthered his enthusiasm about the work he was doing, Kaderly says.
"I think it might be hard for some artists to get as much pleasure out of their art as I do mine," he adds. "It is a great source of pleasure for me. How many people can say they can live with what they have created, whether it's art or their own life?"
That first success led to him making more masks and flowers from citrus peels — "doodling," he called it. Later, he fashioned spiders from dried banana peels, relying on his skills as an upholsterer to further his newfound love of creating art.
Kaderly moved to Deming with his family in the 1970s and lived there for 15 years. The Gila area was a favorite destination for the Kaderlys to explore nature, swim, hike and camp. He returned to California to work in his upholstery business for about 10 years, then retired and returned to Gila, the place that had seemed most like home to him.
He began exploring the Gila riverbed and mountains. Soon he was bringing home unusual pieces of driftwood, cottonwood roots and stones that seemed to have faces and shapes that lent themselves to being brought to life as art. To date, he guesses that he has explored more than 20 miles of the Gila River in search of free material for his art. He spends most of his summer gathering and the rest of his time creating, he says.
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