Serendipity may have brought them together, but art has been the weld-bond between Bill and Karma Simmons’ lives and livelihoods for three decades.
Shortly after meeting at a mutual friend’s card game, Bill invited Karma to dinner – her last name was Lloyd at the time – and remembers asking her: “Are you the kind of person that could quit your job and just go sailing or something?”
“In a heartbeat,” she remembers responding.
Six months later they set sail, traveling from Canada to Mexico, dreaming about a life made with art.
“We started designing this place while we were ‘on the road’ in Mexico,” says Karma of the barn-like structure they built around 1998 to match an existing house on the Valleyford property where Bill’s parents used to live.
The barn is divided into the road-facing artist studio, and the couple’s living space at the rear of the building, accessed via a sloping gravel path.
“The studio has 16-foot ceilings in it,” says Bill, explaining how their loft bedroom and office were an afterthought in the initial home design process, but made possible by the exceptionally high ceilings in the barn.
A ground floor bedroom is in the works, “because we’re getting old,” Bill adds with a laugh.
The ground floor is all open-plan living space, brightly lit and full of plants and artwork, some of it Karma’s, but mostly what the couple has collected.
The kitchen has an enviably large, curved island, a rolling metal table from the old Swackhammer restaurant and other furnishings that – like nearly everything in their home – the Simmons have repurposed or fabricated themselves.
“We knew we wanted to do art,” says Bill, who once owned an auto body shop and has no formal art training, yet constructed much of the couple’s home, including the studio’s unique cord wood-and-mortar walls.
The Simmons figured functional art, especially furniture, was their best way to make a living, but found it nearly impossible to do so, says Karma, who grew up in Spokane, attended Spokane Falls Community College, then moved away to pursue her associate degree in credit and financial management.
“It’s not impossible,” she corrects herself. “It’s very difficult.”
So the couple regrouped. Although they continue to make furniture, as well as architectural items like fencing, screens and the columnar lamps outside their home, the Simmons mostly do large-scale sculpture like Beer Tank at the base of the I-90 westbound Lincoln Street off-ramp.
Pool Day at Comstock Aquatic Center features a woman and two children, which locals occasionally “dress up” with clothing. Before they installed Pool Day, says Karma, they brought the sculpture of the “mom” to ArtFest, where the late Sister Paula Turnbull stopped to admire it.
“It was the cutest thing,” says Karma, remembering how Turnbull, a revered sculptor, tapped the sculpture on the backside, remarking, “She’s got a good butt.”
The Simmons’ largest and most recent piece, Opening Act, hovers inside the First Interstate Center for the Arts. It is three massive, mesh-like hands of welded aluminum, from which hang four dancing figures of varying colors.
Typically the Simmons’ artmaking process starts with a drawing created on Sketchup software. “That allows me to take measurements from all sides and angles,” explains Bill, who does most of the fabrication.Then they determine how they’re going to build the sculpture, sometimes working solidly, like a current dragonfly destined to adorn a Spokane Valley roundabout. A massive cowboy being built in two parts uses organic-shaped templates welded from the inside to create the hollow form.
Both projects are visible from the couple’s living space directly above and adjacent to the studio but separated by a wall of safety glass. It’s from this vantage point that they reflect on the day’s work over a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
“Together,” Bill and Karma say in unison.