On HBO's Six Feet Under, a visit to the Watts Towers topples Claire Fisher, the undertaker's daughter played by Lauren Ambrose, off her cloud of art-school idealism.
She and soon-to-be-boyfriend Russell spend an evening with two art professors, one of whom seduces them with talk of true genius. They then flee to the towers. "This is a fucking masterpiece," proclaims Claire, "and maybe the guy who made it just thought he was shit and now no one even knows his name." "Simon Rodia," says Russell. People do know the guy's name, which deflates Claire's tragic-artist fantasy. Indifferent to any highbrow ideas of creativity and genius, and more just a testament to amazing follow-through, the towers have this kind of tempering effect.
Writer Rick Cleveland learned about Rodia, the Italian-American construction worker who spent 33 years assembling spires out of cement, found pottery and glass on his Watts lot, not long before co-writing this 2003 episode. He had accompanied his preschool children on a field trip to the towers, and the kids came home and built replicas in the yard. When the episode filmed in Watts at night, a crowd from the neighborhood closed in and, as the night wore on, Cleveland invited local kids over to the craft services table for candy and peanut butter–and-jelly sandwiches. "It almost turned into a block party," he remembers.
In the episode, Claire and Russell stare up at the towers until morning. Claire's found inspiration in them but doesn't know what to do with it. How do you respond to the Watts Towers?
L.A.'s art community and the Watts community have faced that quandary ever since 1954, when Rodia deeded his masterpiece to a neighbor and left for good. For more than three decades, the project had been one man's vision. Rodia had no help with the work — he didn't like giving people instructions. And he wanted no money for it — a woman made him angry once by leaving $5 under a rock for him. Then, almost as soon as they were finished, responsibility for preserving the towers fell on the people they inspired.
Part of "Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center," an exhibition scheduled to open Dec. 17 at both of its mentioned locations, will explore the towers' history, including the efforts to preserve them and the artists who have worked in their shadow. It will focus mostly on historical work, like the 66 Signs of Neon sculpture Noah Purifoy made, Rodia-style, out of rubble from the Watts riots. But will the exhibit clarify the towers' legacy, one that's surprisingly hard to pin down?
Part of the confusion comes from the variety of people and groups who have controlled them. When the city declared Watts a "slum clearance" zone and the towers a hazard, a group of L.A. curators, engineers and other citizens formed a committee, bought the towers, proved them structurally sound and started the Arts Center out of a nearby cottage in 1959, offering art classes. The first two directors of the center were assemblage artists active in the black arts movement, and by the 1960s and 1970s, the towers had become associated with African-American identity, and were a neutral territory in a tough neighborhood. "During the [Watts] riots, no one touched them," says Pilar Tompkins Rivas, curator of "Civic Virtue," and they stayed untouched when the Bloods and Crips were warring.
The committee deeded the towers and arts center to L.A. in 1975, but the state took ownership in 1978 after the city's shoddy restoration effort. The towers need to be restored again and, last year, after a frustrating campaign to raise funds, the Irvine Foundation granted LACMA $500,000 to lead the effort.
This excited city arts patrons but made community arts advocates apprehensive. They don't want the towers taken over by cultural tourism, like when LACMA hosted visits in a private coach for $20, or for $43 if you wanted to stop at Watts Coffeehouse for "authentic Southern food." "There's a perceived lack of recognition [of the community]," says Tompkins Rivas. "That's where some contention has arisen in recent years."
In these first few decades after the Watts towers went up, assemblage was their greatest legacy. Making art from nothing, or from what you found, was empowering, especially for the black and, later, Chicano artists identified with Watts, who already grappled with historical and economic dispossession. But that approach doesn't feel contemporary anymore in an era after relational aesthetics — social interactions as art — when artists have become more and more interested in art that engages its surroundings. That development, combined with anxiety over LACMA's takeover, makes the question of how the towers relate to the community all the more important.
The most prominent community art project impelled by the towers right now is the Watts House Project, or WHP, which is turning the block across from the towers into an artwork. "Part of the towers' draw is the industriousness that they represent, the will of the individual to transform a space," says artist Edgar Arceneaux, volunteer director of WHP. "We want to transform space, too, just in a different way."
WHP collaborates with community members and artists to fix some of the residences in disrepair around the towers. A recent $370,000 grant from the foundation ArtPlace will be used to renovate the Platform, a cadre of these condemned houses, where WHP holds meetings. The trick will be to comply with building codes, avoid gentrification, involve community members and give them credit for their involvement, so that it's not just the project of artists who have descended on Watts.
Arceneaux took over the project from Rick Lowe when he was still in school, and so his own artwork has developed in tandem with WHP and seems partly inspired by the towers. His installation in the 2008 California Biennial felt like a vacant lot, with a video projector casting light over debris.
"Simon Rodia created this monument that people project upon," says painter Alexandra Grant, who first became involved with WHP in 2008, proposing a big black metal emblem that said "love" in loopy letters for the Cerant family house. It would have perched on the roof, and evoked resilience and affection. It now will appear in a smaller version on the gate, due to concerns that it would detract from the towers and the fact that the Cerants would rather put funds toward an extra bedroom.
For Grant, being part of WHP means renegotiating her own projections in response to the community's. "It's a process and we're trying to get it right," she says.
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Another project under WHP involves architect Frank Escher, his partner, Ravi GuneWardena, and artist collective Slanguage, who are redeveloping a complex of nearby houses where three generations of the close-knit Garcia family live. "I'll be honest," Escher says. "We're only here because of the Watts Towers. Other L.A. neighborhoods could benefit from this effort." Having the towers adjacent brings in funding and interest. "They're more a symbol of the city than the Hollywood sign," Escher adds.
In January, as part of "Civic Virtue," a group of women artists will re-create O Speak, Speak, a scrappy, rectangular tower that former Watts Arts Center director John Outterbridge and his collaborators erected in 1971 on a plot the city designated for a housing project. Outterbridge wanted community members to speak out about what they wanted on their land.
Someone burned O Speak, Speak not long after its erection, purportedly another artist with a personal vendetta. Outterbridge didn't rebuild, accepting the destruction as part of the "speaking."
Now, this new group of artists, among them Dominique Moody, whose solo exhibition at Watts Arts Center just closed, hopes that rebuilding will inspire new conversation about the towers and the neighborhood around them. Exactly what the conversation should be is, as usual, not quite clear.