August 7, 2016
The last few weekends, I’ve been living off a virtual dart throw at the results of Google’s search phrase ‘Things to do in Los Angeles’. Watts Towers happened to be the pick of the day and my hurried research listed their current exhibition ‘50 Years and I Still Can’t Breathe’ and I was hooked. Driving directions on, braving traffic, I reached there in an hour’s time. Ridiculous indeed, but I was just glad at how wrong my idea of the Watts Towers was. Misled by its thumbnail picture on my phone and the only ‘Watts’ I could recollect was the unit of power, I had assumed that the towers could be something about the initial days of power generation in the city. Watt isn’t Watts. As I said, ridiculous of me. I absolved myself that such surprises (read ridicule) are what I had signed up for, when I had decided to try out life impulsively!
The Towers, the neighborhood, the arts center, all stood in stark contrast to many other must visit places for art in the city. I bought the ticket for Towers’ public tour which was about to start in few minutes, so my exhibition visit had to wait.
If one ever believes that strength lies in numbers and an individual couldn’t significantly contribute to society, Simon Rodia will prove them wrong. His Towers stand testament to the 33 years’ saga of one man. Simon also known as “Sam” by some neighbors, an immigrant to United States from Italy had a single purpose in life – “make something big”. He labored in the coalmines, worked in construction, lost a kid, and lost the other 2 kids to divorce, but never lost sight of his purpose. He secured a wedge-shaped plot of land in Watts, then a working-class community of ethnic backgrounds – Latino, German, Italian, Chinese, African American, and Japanese.
He worked alone for thirty three years (1921-1954) with mere tile setter’s tools, and with no engineering designs or machinery. The vertical legs of the sculptures are columns containing steel reinforcements, tied with wire, wrapped with wire mesh and covered by hand with cement. The objects and materials embedded in the mortar were popular household and decorative items of the time including glass, mirrors, seashells, rocks, ceramic tile, pottery and marble. Among all these, I was most intrigued by the predominantly green broken beverage bottles. He created history with broken bottles?!
His Towers endured the California earthquakes, survived demolition threats, and withstood a 10,000 pound pressure stress test. Today, the Watts Towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are a National Historic Landmark, a State of California Historic Monument, a State of California Historic Park and Historic Monument No. 15, designated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.
He created the largest single work of art created by one man!! The house itself is gone, burned down in 1955, the remains of it are the front façade, posts along the walls, the fireplace and the chimney. The entrance to the patio with its decorated floor from which the sculptures arise and the cake tower were quite interesting. He even paid homage to his heroes, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus by building a ship like structure. Restorations were in progress and I couldn’t take a good picture. Now the gazebo, where the tour guide allowed us to sit on the long circular bench, was intricate with a great assortment of embedded objects. The tour wrapped up in 30 mins time, and few of us headed to the Instrument Gallery at the Arts Center to view the Towers documentary, one of the very few artifacts which has recorded Simon Rodia in person.
At the exhibition, photography wasn’t allowed and I was too engrossed to take notes, hence relying entirely on my memory to pen this down. ‘50 Years and I Still Can’t Breathe’ was a group exhibition to commemorate the Watts Rebellion 50 Years ago. Apparently on August 11, 1965, a mere traffic stop at Watts, when a black young man Marquette Frye was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving by a white police officer, resulted in 6 days of civil unrest, violence, destruction, and 34 dead. Among the many works at display, there was a black statue in the middle of a raised platform, lying in anguished pain. There was text in chalk all over the platform, listing the names of black people fatally killed by law enforcement officers and still counting, only then did I realize that the statue meant a corpse, not someone in pain. Unfortunate isn’t the right one, but am at a loss of words to express this plight where we are still mired by such incidents, the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
I may not have lived long enough in this country to understand the intricacies of its history or empathize with the victims, but discrimination sure isn’t new to me. I am from India, the country which claims to be the largest democracy in the world, owing to its population of 1.2 billion. August 15th, India is celebrating her 70th Independence day, but we are still stalled by an ally to racism – casteism. The feudal past of post-colonization intensified by capitalism, certain classes of people are still being discriminated leading to communal violence and civil unrest. The struggle is the same….
Different nations, different cultures, different histories, but we all have one thing in common, lack of love & tolerance. I once happened to come across this piece of wisdom in Sanskrit ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ which means “the world is one family”. If only we had the generosity in us to extend our love to fellow human beings and include the whole earth in it, we could overcome our differences and also make this world a greener place to live!! Simpler said than done, I know, but are we at least trying is the big question….And when I wonder how I as an individual can contribute to this endeavor, I’ve decided to remind myself about Simon Rodia and his saga.
PS : The Watts Towers’ official website and the tour guide are my sources for this blog.