Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Touring the Watts Towers

"I had in my mind I'm gonna do something, something big."

                                                   Simon Rodia

Although the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles will be remembered for the horrible race riots that occurred here in the the 1960's, people are beginning to associate Watts more and more with a renaissance of the arts.  Art galleries and music festivals are bringing the tourists back, and Watts Towers has become a gathering place for creativity and vision.  When my travel buddy and I toured this amazing art site a few weeks ago, we were joined by fellow art lovers from Germany and France.

Watts Towers is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but in my mind, it's not just a national treasure, but a global one.

These spires were the creation of one man and one man only--an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia.  What makes a man, at the age of 42, spend the next 34 years of his life building such a crazy vision?  A construction worker by day and an artist by night.  Every free hour he spent building, welding and plastering.  He collected over 100,000 pieces of china shards, broken mirror pieces, rocks, shells, soda bottles, anything that caught his eye, to create a mosaic masterpiece.  Then in 1954, when he was done, he deeded his property to a neighbor and walked away, never to return again.  It's an obsession and a madness, yes, but also a brilliant piece of outsider art.  Man can create beauty in the most despairing of places. 
Not only are the spires all architecturally sound with flying buttresses and solid masonry, the artistry in the mosaic work is very beautiful.  Rodia used a technique called pique assiette where he embedded his shards quickly into drying mortar.  While I was more fascinated with this aspect of the towers, my travel buddy kept shaking his head at the engineering feat.  "One guy.  One guy did all this!" he kept repeating.  There are pictures inside the museum of Rodia climbing high above the ground to add another set of rings.  He was steady and fearless.

You can view the towers outside the surrounding fence, but to get inside for a closer look, you must take a tour.  Believe me, it's worth it.  The docent gives you an in depth biography of Simon Rodia's life.  He carried this vision with him to the states from his childhood in Ribottoli, Italy.  Similar (much smaller) spires used to sit on the shoulders of men as they paraded the streets during festivals.  Maybe.  Maybe not, I thought.  I think life had just become boring and sad.  A failed marriage.   A cookie-cutter house in a poor man's neighborhood.  The tragic death of a brother.  

  I begin this post with a quote of his:  I had in my mind I'm gonna do something, something big.  It is a reminder that all of us can think BIG.  No matter what.

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