Watts Towers draw scholarly attention -- at a conference in Italy
The epicenter of Watts Towers admiration will shift eastward 6,000 miles to Genoa, Italy, this week. An international conference, “Art and Immigration: Sabato (Simon) Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles,” is scheduled to convene Thursday through Saturday at the University of Genoa.
The program, co-sponsored by the university and UCLA's International Institute, includes three documentaries by L.A. filmmakers: "I Build the Tower," by Edward Landler and Brad Byer, “Fertile Ground: Stories from the Watts Towers Arts Center,” by Rosie Lee Hooks and S. Pearl Sharp, and “The Towers of Simon Rodia,” a 3-D exploration by Tom Koester of the folk-art monument that Rodia, an unlettered Italian immigrant tradesman, created unassisted from 1921 to 1954.
Born in a village about 20 miles from Naples, the teenage Rodia came to the United States around the turn of the century, when he was in his mid-teens. He worked his way across the country as a laborer, settling in Long Beach, then acquiring the small triangular plot in Watts where his great project began shortly after his third marriage collapsed. Born Sabato, and answering to "Sam," he became known as "Simon" apparently due to a mistake in a 1937 Los Angeles Times article that happened to stick. His English was limited, and the most comprehensive account he gave of his labors was: "I had in mind to do something big, and I did." Far from basking in the glory of his creation, Rodia walked away from it, gave his property to a neighbor, and moved to Northern California, where he died in 1965.
What Rodia left mysterious, others have tried to fill in with research. The Genoa conference-goers will absorb 17 talks and academic papers by conservators and scholars from Europe and the United States, including academics from UCLA, San Jose State, Loyola Marymount University, Cal State Northridge, University of La Verne, New York’s Queens College, England’s Manchester School of Architecture, the University of Genoa and La Sapienza University of Rome.
Presentation subjects include Rodia's place in art history (“Out of Frame: Sam Rodia and Outsider Art,” “Sam Rodia and Fantastic Architecture”), how his story reflects the Italian immigrant experience in America, and the urban landscape surrounding the landmark, including a segment on “The Community of Watts and its Monument: Physical, Socioeconomic and Political Realties.”
“Triage: the Challenge of Conserving the Watts Towers,” the title of a presentation by Virginia Kazor, historic site curator for L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs, hints at the shortage of resources faced by the city government, which under a complex arrangement is responsible for maintaining the state-owned landmark. Rodia’s elaborately-carved and adorned work is made of metal and mortar, inlaid with tiles, scraps of pottery, seashells and bits of colored bottle glass. It reaches nearly 100 feet high; exposed to the elements, it’s vulnerable to corrosion, cracking and the flaking-off of decorative pieces.
Conferees also may get some dissenting views on how the conservation effort is going. The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, a citizens’ group that helped rescue the towers from the wrecking ball 50 years ago — then deeded them to the city in 1975 — has submitted a report called “Damage in Process.” It details 11 ways in which it maintains the city has failed to use proper conservation materials and techniques, or has been remiss in its planning and reporting of the ongoing work on the towers.
Michael Cornwell, the group’s chairman, said Tuesday that he is not attending the conference, but copies of the report will be available for attendees, and he expects filmmaker Landler and L.A. scholar Luisa Del Giudice to cover some of its points during their presentations.
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Watts Towers. Credit: Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times
Watts Towers detail showing Simon Rodia's decorative work on the towers. Los Angeles Times