Folk art, Outsider art, Art Brut — no matter what you call it, the work of self-taught artists has been fascinating doctors, curators, and other artists for the past hundred years. Inspired by a vision, these artists are often driven by obsession to realize their ideas on found materials using makeshift methods that might seem illogical but end up leading to profound works of art. Many of these “artists” do not consider themselves artists at all. Most have a passion for something or a cause and want to do something great for it or have its message be heard. One of these self taught artists is Sabato “Simon” Rodia. Sabato Rodia was born in Serino, Italy in 1879 and arrived in the United States around 1894. He came to Watts area in 1921 at age 42 and was commonly known as “Sam”. The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, his masterpiece and the world’s largest single construction created by one individual, was his obsession for 33 years.
For years after his death, the towers were closed to the public, caught in a political limbo of funding and restoration. Today, public tours are conducted by the Charles Mingus Center, part of the modern Arts Center built beside the Towers in 1970. The Center has a gallery showing African-American works, stages LA’s oldest annual jazz festival and offers classes in painting, sculpture, music, dance and film animation to local youngsters, taught by professional artists.
Watts Towers are a quick 15-20 minute ride from Downtown Los Angeles on the Metro. Since I love weird, interesting things, plus the towers are in my backyard, I had to take a trip to check them out! when getting off the train, I half expected to see the towers spiraling off in the distance. After walking down the street, they appeared, three minarets sparkling in the sun!
Watts Towers or as Simon Rodia called his masterpiece, Nuestro Pueblo, are a collection of 17 interconnected sculptural structures created out of steel covered with mortar and embellished by the decorative finishings of mosaic tiles, glass, clay, shells and rock. Simon Rodia wired rebars together then wrapped this joint with wire mesh and hand packed it with mortar and his mosaic surface. He built them with no special equipment or predetermined design, working alone with hand tools. Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken pottery to Rodia, and he also used damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery and CALCO (California Clay Products Company). Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930s through 1950s, some still bearing the former logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry; blue glass appears to be from milk of magnesia bottles.
Surrounding the towers are walls studded with blue glass in wave formations and more than 25,000 seashells. The three tallest towers are like masts waiting to sail back to the home Rodia left age 15, where every year they hold a Festa dei Gigli. The Gigli – huge lilies made of papier maché and wood that are paraded around the town for the feast of St Paulinus – look a lot like Rodia’s towers. Other structures include a a gazebo with a circular bench, three bird baths, an outdoor oven and the font where Rodia performed baptisms and weddings, though he had no religious status or affiliation. Simon even constructed his “Ship of Marco Polo” as tribute to the Italian explorer, fully decorated like the rest of the structures.
Simon Rodia, while being a quiet man, explained his masterpiece by saying, “I had in mind to do something big and I did it.” And something big was created. To stand inside one of Rodia’s towers and look up through the spider web of steel and concrete made me dizzy, like standing in a dream encrusted with a sparkling mosaic.
At 75, after a fall, he gave the house and the towers to a neighbour and moved away without a backward glance to live the last 10 years of his life with his sister in Northern California. Efforts to save the towers from destruction and to restore them made them famous. Ultimately they would be saved, and become one of only nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark in 1990.
Here are a few tips when visiting Watts Towers:
- Public guided tours of the Watts Towers are conducted Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. There are no tours Monday through Wednesday, national holidays or rainy days. Tours are $7 for adults and free for children under 12. You can find more information here.
- You can take the Metro Green line to 103rd Street Station from downtown, or drive. While there is no designated parking for the towers (none that I could see), there is plenty of street parking. If you decide on driving, the address to the towers is Watts Towers Arts Center Campus, 1727 East 107th Street, Los Angeles, California 90002 or you can refer to the map below.
Above all, have fun, enjoy the masterpiece the Simon Rodia has left us and take lots of pictures! If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know! You can also get Joeography in your inbox! Sign up here!