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’…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

L.A. STAYCATION - Pt. 2 - WEISMAN MUSEUM - a cultural jewel


A Cultural Jewel In Beverly Hills

Imagine waking up and looking at a portrait of yourself painted by Andy Warhol… or walking to the bathroom past a Cezanne, a Picasso or Rothko… or using the bathroom while staring at a Hockney! This was the life led by Frederick Weisman and his legacy proved to be our latest adventure in LaLaLand.

After a staycation day of pastrami, corned beef and matzo ball soup at Canter’s, the oldest Jewish Deli in Los Angeles and meandering through the elaborate, high-end outdoor mall, The Grove, and L.A.’s historic Farmer’s Market filled w/ food stalls, food stands, meat markets, gourmet and spice shops and produce, produce everywhere – Bob, Nguyen, Richard and I thought it was time to brush off L.A. commerce for some L.A. culture.

No… “Los Angeles culture” is not an oxymoron.  Besides the two magnificent Getty Museums, LACMA (the wonderful Los Angeles County Museum of Art), etc., etc. – there are cultural treasures hidden everywhere in this city… one jewel is the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation museum nestled in a Spanish villa in Beverly Hills.

A little background:

Frederick Weisman, a businessman and philanthropist, began his climb to wealth and art collecting as President of Hunts Foods. He founded a savings and loan, bought a racetrack, developed drugstore goods and established the first Toyota dealership in America. Talk about your diversification. His first wife was the sister of billionaire Norton Simon (who established his own museum in Pasadena, CA.) and, like her brother, the two became serious art collectors. When Frederick and his lst wife divorced they split the collection, but Frederick continued his patronage of artists. Over the years he donated artwork to museums around the country and established the Weisman Museum in his Carolwood Drive home in Beverly Hills. His second wife, Billie Milam Weisman has been running the Foundation and museum since his death in 1984.

To view the home and its collection costs nothing but a reservation and a promise to adhere to the ‘rules’. Our reservation was for 10:30am. The first rule is you cannot park on the street. It is Beverly Hills, after all, and unless you live there or are a gardener, the residents don’t like a lot of ‘miscellaneous’ cars parked on their streets. We arrived at the ‘villa’s’ gates promptly, pressed the intercom and was let onto the Weisman property where we parked our car on the semi-circular driveway in front of the house.

The second rule: leave all purses in your car. Nguyen and I complied.
As we stepped out of the car, the first things we saw were huge statues on the front lawn, one by the incomparable Henry Moore.

Facing the villa’s front door is a bronze sculpture (seemly escorted by two whimsical sheep) by artist Robert Graham who had been married to Angelica Huston since 1992. He died in 2008.

Before we entered the house, our docent pointed out a “not very flattering” sculpture of Picasso done by a woman artist. A spurned lover, perhaps? 

Sadly, I didn’t have my reporter’s notebook (in my purse, locked in my car), so I was unable to write down her name and find out more about her.

The third and fourth rule: No touching the art and, sadly, no pictures were allowed to be taken inside the house.

As we entered the house, the first thing that struck me was the dichotomy between the artwork and the home’s furnishings. The art was modern – the furnishing were not. In fact, the house looked like it was decorated by Mario Buatta, known in the design world as the “chintz king.” Overstuffed floral furniture and antiques sat proudly w/ Picassos and Noguchis and Rauschenbergs and Keith Harings.

Our docent explained that Weisman bought the house fully furnished. He wanted to keep all the plump, cheerful furniture so that he and his guests could lounge about comfortably while admiring the art. The furniture did look comfortable and did seem to cheer up some of the more ‘dark’ and ‘angry’ paintings.

There are more than 400 works displayed inside and outside of the house, as well as in a large modern barn-like structure built next door to the villa that contains a large collection of Warhols, painted motorcycles (and I mean real, actual Harley-type motorcycles) by Keith Haring, among other artworks.

A collection of large Warhol flowers w/ “diamond dust” framed a huge window in the cavernous room. Our docent explained to us how Andy had ground up coke bottles and glued them onto his paintings. When people mistook the glitter for diamond shavings, he neglected to correct them.

In Weisman’s collection you will find European modernists, including Cezanne, Picasso and Kandinsky and surrealists including Miro and Magritte. Among Weisman’s post war artists are Giacometti, Noguchi, Calder, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Abstract impressionists include deKooning, Francis, Still and Rothko and pop artists such as Lichtenstein, some very fun Oldenburg pieces (my favorite is one of a baked potato), Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, including many portraits of Weisman and his second wife, Milan. There are even some super surrealist sculptures by Hanson and de Andrea. To say that this is a stupendous collection is an understatement. Some of the greatest pieces of art from the 20th Century are on display here… not to mention that just one single piece of art from that house could easily finance my old age and pay off my mortgage.

Once the tour in the house was over, we entered the ‘backyard’ and gardens on the way to the ‘barn’ and were told we could now take pictures. I snapped away, but again, w/o my reporter’s notebook, have no memory of who all the artists are, but do remember rubbing elbows w/ a Brancusi and a couple of Segals … I’ll let the art speak for itself.

(sitting in the background is a white-washed bronze by Segal)

(this is not the gardener, but a sculpture "made to size" of a gardener)

Leaving the gardens we explored the 'barn' then found ourselves in yet another yard filled w/ more art.

(the white-washed bronze of a person sitting in a rocker is another Segal)

The tour over, we left thru the garage where we got to see a few cars that Weisman collected, including a vintage blue Rolls Royce…

before we got into our own car (not a Rolls). The gates opened and we drove away leaving the wonderful world of Weisman art behind. We had fed our souls, now it was time to feed out stomachs and dream of finding another cultural jewel tomorrow.

Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation
265 N. Carolwood Drive
Los Angeles, California  90077
(310) 27705075

Saturday, August 21, 2010



Recently my brother and his wife (Bob & Nguyen) came for a week’s visit. We hadn’t seen them since our “long & wine-ing” road trip in Sonoma and wondered how we would top their hospitality that allowed us to stay in their time-share condo and explore the sites and ‘tastes’ of Sonoma. They’ve been to LA many times, so what to do… what to do?

I needn’t have fretted. The first day they were here we were ‘on the road again’ (Willie Nelson singing in my head) to Malibu. Specifically, the Malibu Getty Villa museum.

The day was gorgeous (well, it is Southern California, after all) – the sky was blue and the temperature was in the high 70’s/low 80’s – perfect. We arrived at the entrance to the villa for our 2:00 parking reservation and drove up the landscaped hill to the admitting gate, then drove some more thru the grounds to the parking garage… We took the elevator to a walled-walkway and the path to yet another set of elevators (this is not a museum run amok w/ walk-ins)… The elevator descended. The doors opened and – voila – we stepped into an estate that could have been air-lifted thru space and time from ancient Rome, complete with an amphitheater that has performances of ancient ‘costumed’ plays only w/ better lighting and a better sound system.

The villa, modeled after the partially excavated Villa dei Papiri in Italy, was built in the early 70’s on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean by J. Paul Getty to house his collection of ancient treasures. It was closed in the late 90’s for years of renovation and was reopened in 2006. We entered the villa

and found courtyard pools…

and busts...

and statues...

carved marble coffins

 marble wall renderings…

and ‘primitives’ – some as far back as 5,000 B.C. …

and reflecting pools…

We wandered thru the rooms of the villa, marveling at the art and architecture then continued our wandering thru the gardens. We sat by the large reflecting pool to muse and imagine how life must have been all those thousands of years ago. Well, for the rich anyway.

Our stomachs brought us back to reality. It was time to do a bit of wine tasting (yeh, in Malibu – who knew?) and get a bite to eat.

Because it was approaching the end of the ‘tasting hours’ (as opposed to the ‘witching hour’), we only had time to visit one tasting room before they all closed. We sped up PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) straight to Rosenthal “The Malibu Estate” featuring wines from Malibu-Newton Canyon. Jim Galcia, an account specialist, was our barista.

Our flight started off w/ a 2007 Surfrider Pinot Gris. ($19 retail). It was a nice wine for a hot day – light, crisp, fruity.

Next was the 2008 Surfrider chardonnay ($21 retail) which I really liked. Full-bodied, w/ a touch of oak and a nice ‘burst’ of tropical fruit.

The 2008 Rosenthal Chardonnay ($25 retail) w/ its hint of Meyer lemon and other fruits, wasn’t as full-bodied as I like, but was still a lovely white wine.

We moved from white to the 2008 Surfrider pinot noir ($27) which wasn’t as “celebratory” in the mouth as Bob would have liked.

We really liked the 2004 Rosenthal cabernet sauvignon ($39) w/ its flavors of chocolate and exotic spices seeping thru.

The 2007 Surfrider Hang Ten Red ($25), a cab-merlot, petite Bordeaux, San Giovese blend, was a terrific red table wine, rich in flavor.

Wine tasting over, we bought a bottle of the chilled 2008 Surfrider chardonnay and headed for Malibu Seafood (no corkage fee).

Jim recommended the squid steak sandwich. I love calamari – but a squid sandwich?!?! I wasn’t sure about that as I kept picturing those humongous squids in those old B&W horror movies.

The restaurant, not much more than a fish ‘shack’

w/ outdoor picnic table and bench seating was on PCH right across the street from the Pacific Ocean.

Fresh fish and an ocean view. What’s not to love?

And love this restaurant we did.

Bob had the scallops w/ a salad and baked potato. Though the salad was just a bunch of boring greens, the scallops were cooked to perfection. I had the shrimp sandwich burger: fresh shrimp chopped up, breaded and deep fried served on a burger roll w/ a slice of American cheese, fish sauce on the side. Not your fast food fish sandwich. There’s nothing like truly fresh shrimp and this was very fresh shrimp. Nguyen ordered fish & chips and – yes - that squid steak sandwich. I had a couple of bites and I have to admit, this sandwich was the ‘dish’ of the night. The thick white steak was grilled to perfection and served on toasted bread w/ mayo and lettuce & tomato – just like “mom” would make. There was so much food on the table that when we realized that Richard’s order never arrived, it didn’t matter. He had ordered something healthfully grilled, so I certainly didn’t miss it. Did I mention we also had sourdough bread, clam chowder, steamed mussels and more French fries? Well, we did.

The wine gone and our stomachs more than full, we headed back to “the Valley” as the sun began to set.

Not a bad ‘day one’ of our staycation.