Art Brut: Watts Towers

 

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.

Watts Towers

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Watts Towers

 

Here are a few tips when visiting Watts Towers:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

 

 

41 thoughts on “Art Brut: Watts Towers

  1. Not very many posts on the Watts Towers, and yours is the best of what I’ve seen. Very interesting and colorful pictures, and great information.

  2. These pictures are UNREAL! I have never heard of the Watts Towers, but this place seems like something I would absolutely love to see in person. Great information – it’s clear you really appreciate the artwork and story behind it – and that appreciation definitely rubbed off on me too. Thank you!

  3. I’ve never heard of this place and I’m glad to read your article on it. What a great use of materials and putting what might be waste into beautiful art. My children are learning mosaics and I think this will be a great example to show them!

  4. These look incredible and I love the quote ‘ I had in mind to do something big and I did it.’ – it makes is sounds so simple, while they look anything but!!

  5. I’m never quite sure how to feel about places like this. I’m not an art enthusiast, which I think really helps when you’re looking at this type of personal art – maybe you can understand more what the artist was thinking. I’m not sure about it myself.

  6. This is truly amazing! The shapes, the colors, the 25000 shells, the altitude… you can really feel that this piece of art was his passion. He spend 33 years working on it! It’s incredible that he did it without any equipment, all alone with his hands.

  7. I love posts like this which teach you about something you’d never know about! The towers look incredible – quirky but very cool! I agree with Erika: they’ve got a touch of Gaudi about them.

  8. I have to admit that I have never been to the Watts Towers, even though I am in LA very frequently. It is so great to see that you can go there now, as it used to be in one of the most notorious gang neighborhoods of LA. Maybe it was the beauty of the towers that changed things for the better, at least a little. I would like to think so.

  9. Wow, interesting find. Never heard about it but it looks like a very enjoyable work of art.

    It reminds me of Gaudi’s works in Barcelona. A lot of common elements between the two.

    Cheers.

  10. Woah, I’ve never heard of these towers and LA is one of my favorite cities in the world. Definitely checking this out next time I’m in the area.

  11. I so need to finally see Watts Towers. It’s not that far from my home base, so I’m glad that you included bus directions from downtown. Simon’s long, fearless focus truly gave something ‘big’ back to the neighborhood. When he was done, he was done. Astounding photos too, Joe.

  12. Looks like Gaudi work. I don’t know much about art but I find this incredibly interesting because it is not locked up in a gallery, but part of everyday life.

  13. What an interesting, weird and colorful place to visit! I didn’t know anything like this existed. It reminds me a little bit of Gaudi’s Barcelona, with all those colorful tiles.

  14. I’d never heard of these towers. I can’t believe that they’re in L.A.’s backyard! I love the mosaic glass and shell designs. What a great visual to imagine children bringing him bits of glass, pottery, and shells as he worked. The idea of having a vision and acting on it, though, is by far the most impressive.

  15. Wow! Never heard of this place. I’m definitely bookmarking this, the whole area looks so incredibly unique! I like the angles that you took the photo’s at. I love that is has Historic status as well.

  16. Love all the colors. It must have taken forever to get all those different color tiles. The sculptures look like they would be a great place to spend an afternoon exploring. I love the close up shots of the details of the sculpture.

  17. These towers totally remind me of Gaudi! I love your pictures, you’ve really shown their wonderful and colorful design. I also really like that you are exploring places in your own backyard, you don’t always have to travel far to see beautiful things:-).

  18. Wow – I read a lot of blogs and generally know quite a lot about traveling (I’m a travel agent) but I had never heard of this before. Thanks for the inspiration!

  19. Cool photos! I’ve never heard of this place – but it looks amazing! The structures and the use of color is awesome – and makes for a really lively exhibit.

  20. I love these kinds of structures. They’re so unique! And they demonstrate a passion and dedication that many people don’t possess. There’s a similar structure outside of Phoenix called Mystery Castle. If you’re ever in the area, I think you’d really enjoy it.

  21. I must admit I would not call those towers beautiful, but at the same time, there’s something very interesting about them… “normal” art is very often so logical and you can somehow follow the thread of thoughts of the creator, while in art created from found materials by people who wouldn’t even consider themselves as artists, is actually surprising. I would love to see this live one day.

  22. I admit I’ve never heard about the Watts Towers before. But they indeed look amazing and with an interesting history (taking in consideration the political limbo you mentioned). It looks like there are many details in these towers that should be discovered by anyone who sees them!

  23. There is something exciting about this kind of art. Whatever you choose to call it, Folk art, Outsider art or Art Brut it is a style that I have been getting to know little by little. I like art that is a little out of the ordinary, thinking that is outside the box or norm. Watts Towers definitely fits into that mold.

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