Tuesday, August 31, 2010



Look at these Towers – they’re 99 feet tall and stand in a seemingly nondescript, low income neighborhood in Watts, Los Angeles. They were built by one man – by himself! – for reasons known only to himself - and stand as a testament to the human spirit.

Years ago Richard, my brother Bob and I had ventured to Watts to marvel at these incredible Towers, but Bob’s wife Nguyen had never seen them. We fixed that w/ a perfect ‘staycation’ excursion.

The backstory:

Once upon a time, long before recycling became a national sport, there lived an Italian immigrant in Watts, LA, doing his ‘recycling’ thing – saving the environment while creating something beautiful. He made ‘recycling’ into an art form.

His name was Simon Rodia. His art form – the extraordinary ‘mosaic’ spiral structures called the Watts Towers.

He was an uneducated telephone repairman and tile setter who built these structures from his own ‘made-up’ cement mixture w/out any ‘learned’ engineering or architectural knowledge, then turned them into an exquisite maze of mosaic. His achievement is nothing short of mind boggling.

Even though Rodia was married three times and had children, one of whom died in early childhood, he was basically a loner and, as the legend goes, a drinker.

When he bought his home in Watts, he chose a property that would allow him to follow his ‘vision.’ He lived alone and paid the neighborhood kids pennies to find “found” objects to incorporate into his Towers and surrounding cement garden.

The Towers were his passion. He draped the structures w/ string lights and would work on them late into the night. It kept him sober and less lonely. During WWII he was forced to remove the light strings and there were whispers that the Towers served as an enemy radio station.

Then, in 1954 he walked away from Watts and his Towers, giving them to a neighbor. He moved away, never to return. No one knows why.

Over the years the Towers were almost razed as an ‘eyesore.’ At one point, someone even wanted to buy them and turn them into a taco stand. However, w/ the help of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, founded in 1959, and many others, artistic sanity prevailed and the Towers have been preserved, restored and are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is deemed a National Historic Landmark. Even during the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the Towers were left untouched.

After exploring the Towers, the four of us dropped in next door at The Watts Towers Art Center that hosts on-going art exhibits, and where you can see a short film about Rodia with old B&W footage of him, this little man w/ big dreams, w/ his own voice over commentary.

Next door is the vibrant and active Charlie Mingus Youth Arts Center w/ classrooms for art and music open to all the neighborhood children.

It even has a garden where the children can plant and nurture vegetables and flowers.

Kai El’ Zabar, a writer working at the Watts Towers Arts Center took us on the tour of the Mingus Center where we got to see the art rooms and student art from this summer’s program displayed in a beautiful exhibit. She told us an amusing story about how when the building was finished, “they” had forgotten to plan for a music room – which was rather jaw dropping since the Center is named after Charlie Mingus (raised just a few blocks from the Towers) one of the great names in the history of jazz. However, a room planned for another use was converted into the music room and the kids have been learning instruments and producing their own CDs ever since.

Two hours later we left this amazing cultural center sitting in the shadow of the towering Towers that represent, to me at least, how one individual can help change the world and lift the human spirit through art.

Learn more about Watts Towers, Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers and Charles Mingus Art Centers + video and how you can support them:

And, since we were just talking about music… a coda:

Have you ever tried making mosaic art? I did when I designed a backsplash for my friend Candace’s butler pantry using shards from china and Roseville pottery she inherited from her mom… cherished pieces that were destroyed in the 1994 So. California earth quake. It’s messy and time consuming and I didn’t even have to erect spiral towers or climb many stories while the cement was still wet to create my mosaic vision. In fact, since Candace’s tile man was the one who really implement my design, I really didn’t realize how messy (and tricky) until HGTV decided to highlight Candace’s home on “Your Home w/ Kitty Bartholomew” and I was asked to demonstrate how to make the backsplash by recreating the process, on-camera, giving step-by-step instructions on a model 2’x 2’. The Watts Towers are waaaayyyy more than 2’x2’…


Richard said...

Lovely mosaic of an L.A. landmark!

Karen Harris said...

We've taken the Metro to Watts Towers. Red line to 7th/Metro, switch to the Long Beach line (Gold, I think) going south. You can find the destination station on line. It's a very L.A. experience.
Thanks for sharing Loni.

ilona saari said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Karen. Considering the drive to and thru downtown, we should have taken the metro... As a 'displaced' NYer, even after all these years, I still find it a little 'arrogant' that we have a subway system here in earthquake country- Is the trip on top of the ground? If so - I'd love to try it.

bobsaari said...

One of the truly inspired places around... I was first turned on to the Towers in 1975 by Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man series. Wonderful!

Barb said...

How interesting! I've never heard of these towers before. If I ever get to LA I will have to go see them. Thanks for the 'trip' Barb

Gayle Dallas Blackston said...

Watts towers. I knew the Watts riots. It's
an inspirational story with lessons for all of us. I actually caught a glimpse of the Towers on your page
but was rushing. They are beautiful. I would never guess that they were constructed by a man. An ordinary man, who decided to change his life and in doing so, other's lives too. It's a profound reminder of what we can do. We should never forget that lesson.
Maybe, you won't build towers, but maybe you will create "something" that will be accidental art.T
Thanks, Ilona. The mosaics were lovely and it must have been great fun to play with those pieces.

ilona saari said...

Thanks, Gayle - I hope you got a chance to watch the video on the link I posted and any and all promotion of the Mingus Arts Center would be greatly appreciated by them