Of all the famous L.A. landmarks—the Capitol Records Building, the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Monica Pier—perhaps none has a more fascinating origin story than the Watts Towers. This monument to one individual’s creativity and community activism is a fascinating place to visit, both because of the physical scale of the towers and their importance to L.A.’s art community.
For these reasons, a number of us in the Education department took a field trip to the Watts Towers to see them close up, learn about the community programs presented there, and find out more about Simon Rodia (1879-1965), the Italian immigrant, construction worker, and self-made artist who built the towers all by himself over some thirty-three years.
Ten of us ventured to Watts on a sunny Friday morning. The towers are tucked in a neighborhood filled with houses, schools, and nearby Metro tracks. We parked and entered the Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, located in a building adjacent to the towers. The center serves as a space for art workshops, gallery exhibitions, and school programs (one of which was underway when we entered). First we watched a video about Simon’s life, which helped us understand the nature of his unusual undertaking: an immigrant from Serino, Italy, feeling far from home and missing familiar cultural traditions, who took it upon himself to express that longing through the creation of an ambitious work of art.
Examples of how the immigrant experience inspires artistic expression pervade our culture: novels by E.L. Doctorow, songs by Bruce Springsteen, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. As our Education team explores in many of the Skirball’s school tours and school performance programs, the immigrant story is one of the universal experiences in American life. Simon did not express his yearning for Italy or his relishing of opportunity in America in couplets written in a notebook or by painting a watercolor of stars and stripes.
Instead, Simon went big, creating a seventeen-part structure that includes three towers connected by interlocking arches.
The towers extended from the rear of his small turn-of-the-century house (until it burnt to the ground in 1956, the result of a Fourth of July firework that landed within the walls of the compound), comprised of re-bar, sculpted concrete, coat hangers, glass bottles and soda cans, and a host of other repurposed materials that he collected and then embedded into his magnificent structures. What resulted from this labor of love and longing is a monument to the immigrant spirit of Watts, a neighborhood that was predominantly Mexican at the time. Among the shapes printed into the concrete, the tool imprints, and broken tile and glass pieces are the words “Nuestro Pueblo,” meaning “our town” in Spanish, the name that marks his masterpiece. He saw these towers as a gift to Watts, a work dedicated to the community in which it was created over the course of thirty years. A big dream realized, inspired perhaps by his Italian home, but sustained by the soaring optimism of the American spirit.
Over the years, the Watts Towers (now a National Historic Monument) became more than a tourist destination. It now houses an arts center, an amphitheater, and an adjacent gallery/artist-in-residence house. After our tour of the towers, we walked down the street to visit the studio of the current residing artist, Dominique Moody, whose role is to foster the creative spirit of Simon Rodia for today’s visitors and community members
Tapping into the notion of the nomad, the traveler, Dominique is interested in shaping a new paradigm for the life of an artist, one in which the means to make art aren’t restricted by the struggle to get by. Instead, she wants the NOMAD project to represent a new way in which she can live her life as an artist, not just make art as an aspect of her life. The truck, the house, and the road will allow her home, her inspiration, and her art to come together. Dominique intends to “set out” at the end of the year, like Columbus leaving Spain for the unknown, and voyage around the country making art and living the life of an artist.
The two artists, Simon Rodia and Dominique Moody, are separated by almost fifty years of history in this particular neighborhood. And yet, their examination of the world is so congruent. The use of found materials, whether it’s tile from the factory where Simon worked or the feathers a blue bird dropped in Dominique’s garden, has meaning. Just as in Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, the components matter. Our use—and our reuse—matters. We connect to history, to place, and to a particular ethos of how to live in the world through the things we make, save, and carry.
All in all, it was a remarkable visit. We felt inspired and rejuvenated by a visit to the Watts Towers. It reminded us that community and inspiration are shared values, whether you’re building a tower south of downtown, a truck to take out on the road to make art, or an ark atop the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s all a kind of exploration, and these iconic LA towers remind us that as long as we reach up, think big, and work together, each of us can discover something new in the world.