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June 02, 2003

Outsider Art--Watts Towers


Being the worst tourist in the world, after twenty years in Southern California I finally made my first visit to Watts Towers. I went along as a chauffeur for my daughter, who was bribed by her art teacher to attend a ceremony honoring high school art students who were the winners of an “expressionistic portrait” contest. (My daughter seemed rather relieved that her own expressionistic portrait, which she found a bit embarassing, hadn’t been selected for the contest.)

The ceremony was held at the Watts Towers Art Center, a building right next door to the Towers themselves. The student art on display at the Center demonstrated to my satisfaction that (1) there are many talented young artists out there and (2) expressionism is not a mode of art making that I would recommend to the young. It’s hard to invest distortion with meaning when there isn’t a context of “standard” representation to play off of, and most of these kids are not yet sufficient masters of mimesis to provide this context. Likewise, the notion of having adolescents make art out of anguish is like throwing gasoline on fires—the outcome is rather too predictable for the creation of great art. I suspect trying to get giddy and tormented adolescents to create art in a classical vein would produce more interesting final results, as it would involve a far bigger imaginative stretch for teenagers.

S. Rodia, Watts Towers (Nuestro Pueblo), 1921-54

While I was there, of course, I had to go check out the famous towers, which are just as surreal and yet oddly serene as reproductions would suggest. As I’m sure everyone has heard, they were the creations of Simon Rodia, who in 1921, at the age of 42, decided to leave a legacy of himself to the world and built his own quasi-architectural sculptures on a lot next door to his suburban house for the next 33 years. A construction worker and apparently the only Italian living in Watts (at the time not yet an African American community), Rodia began to build his unique sculptures out of rebar and concrete, decorated with glass bottles, sea shells, and various objects his highly irritated neighbors routinely threw at him. The structures grew and overlapped so that that the final result includes more than just towers; rather touchingly his “Nuestro Pueblo” includes walkways and seating areas for a social life that apparently eluded the solitary Rodia. In short, the creation of a true original, a folk artist, a nut-job, an “outsider,” despised by all of his right-thinking, upwardly mobile neighbors.

But wait, he ultimately won that battle, didn’t he? His art is world famous, a scene of pilgrimage. Well, not exactly. Local politicians and community leaders have clearly clasped Mr. Rodia’s creation to their bosoms, but one suspects that their interest in his art is rather more superficial than Mr. Rodia would have preferred. The community has memorialized the site by surrounding it with a huge metal fence, knocking down other homes nearby and building a sort of concrete plaza behind it (complete with a walkway memorializing the Watts “Rebellion” of the 1960s—which of course happened over a decade after Mr. Rodia handed the keys to a neighbor and disappeared.) The Watts Towers Art Center itself and some surrounding buildings are painted with murals emphasizing just the sort of uplifting political messages that any politician would be delighted to gaze upon.

?, Antismoking Mural Behind Watts Tower Arts Center

What none of this later “art” possesses is an ounce of the feeling of Mr. Rodia’s creation, which constitutes a hymn to the Southern California sea, sky and mountains and the higher forms of social communion that he clearly thought were possible in a setting of such intense natural beauty.

S. Rodia, Watts Tower, 1921-54, (Detail)

It’s a tough thing, art. Even when society finally “appreciates” you, it often does so because it finds your art useful, not because it finds your vision, well, beautiful.



posted by Friedrich at June 2, 2003


Very interesting tale of Mr. Rodia---did he really just give the keys to a neighbor and disappear?? Or did he die? I feel bad if he didn't have anyone to sit in his garden with.

As far as society appreciating art when it is useful as opposed to you think Michelangelo felt that way in his day? Because I would say the world appreciates the beauty of his work today. I think many appreciate the beauty of the Impressionists. Perhaps POLITICIANS only use art in "useful" ways---perhaps the Pope only found Michelangelo "useful." But I'm not sure if that's quite the same as "society." If you lifted as many hearts as these artists do in real people every day, it would be hard to say the work isn't appreciated. But the appreciation may not be formally "expressed." Sort of like only finding out when you get sick what you meant to a friend---even though you may have meant it to them every day.

Posted by: annette on June 2, 2003 03:07 PM

Wow, ain't it fabulous. I've never been, myself, despite having spent a lot of time in L.A. I had no idea it had been folded into something worthy and political -- too bad. That anti-smoking mural's a disgrace.

How'd your daughter react to the towers?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 2, 2003 09:50 PM


was this part of a larger folk art movement way back then? Concrete and glass structures abound in Wisconsin, all created by farmers or rural folks on a much smaller scale with much the same look. And done around the same time too...just after WWI and during the Depression. Some have religious themes but most seem to have been complete whimsy. I have often wondered what prompted them to take concrete, decorate it with broken glass, crockery and other oddments and make things from it?

Posted by: Deb on June 3, 2003 08:36 PM

Two words: Spirit bottles.

I hereby put a gris gris on anyone who monkeys with someone's art, especially if that art has been called outsider. Bad mojo!

Posted by: j.c. on June 4, 2003 02:18 AM


Can you send me to some pictures of the Wisconsin concrete and glass art from the interwar period? I would be fascinated to see if Rodia was part of some larger movement.

Of course, I suppose decorating concrete with glass is kind of an obvious thing to do, and probably originated in Roman times...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2003 11:48 AM


Posted by: ISABEL on June 11, 2003 05:11 PM


Posted by: ISABEL on June 11, 2003 05:12 PM

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