Let It Flow: Honoring Builder and Artist Bill Adkins

Retired Contractor Stays Creativity On-Point with “Junk Art”

Bruce Giffin (left) and J.W. “Bill” Adkins

Keith Hamm

Bruce Giffin (left) and J.W. “Bill” Adkins

Home builders stand on the shoulders of the builders who taught them the trades. Skills pass through, and as each generation gathers new layers of knowledge — of design, materials, and building codes — the end result, especially in the case of a custom home, is a safer and more efficient, comfortable, and beautiful space to be in.

Back and forth across the States in his pickup truck early on, Giffin & Crane cofounder Bruce Giffin cut his teeth in construction under many established builders, including J.W. “Bill” Adkins. Between jobs in 1979, Bruce was driving through downtown Santa Barbara when he noticed Adkins’s shop. He pulled over and asked for work, remembering, “I think I was looking for a father figure, and he was looking for a laborer.” They worked together for about a year, but the lessons learned would last a lifetime.

“Bill taught me to think outside the box,” Giffin remembers. “And who says the box has to be square?”

Giffin only got fired once in his life, and that was immediately after laughing at Adkins — known for processing jobsite frustrations via bursts of screaming rage — when he blew a hydraulic hose on his old tractor after a tough day of digging. A few years later, Adkins hired Giffin again, adding another layer of knowledge to the young builder’s skill set.

By then, Adkins had established his own construction company after 12 years of swinging a hammer for contractor E.M. Clark. “He fired me,” remembers Adkins. “It was the best thing he ever did for me. I came home and felt sorry for myself for about 16 seconds and then went out and got my contractor’s license.” Adkins took on residential projects along the South Coast, with occasional jobs in Santa Ynez and Ventura County, building on knowledge he learned from his grandfather — also a builder — who raised him in his native Lompoc, and from his stint in the U.S. Navy at Port Hueneme, where he learned to operate heavy machinery with United States Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Seabees.

Adkins transitioned to commercial building as his patience wore thin with discerning homeowners — “One time I argued for four hours over a 1/16th of an inch!” — and in 1983 cofounded with his wife, Martha, a downtown shop called the Hardwood Mill, where they sold exotic hardwood and did custom milling. Bill retired from construction in the late ’80s, and they retired the mill shop in 2001 after gradually transforming it into an eclectic and compelling creative atelier where Adkins makes what he calls “junk art” and Martha commands a hobby space of sewing machines and tall shelves loaded with fabrics. They call it The Loft (jwadkins.com). It’s filled with Adkins’s sculptures, which he brainstorms late at night and tinkers together with woodworking, welding, and metal-fabrication equipment.

“I’m fascinated with imagination and all that crap,” Adkins says. “Why not just let it flow?”