I’ve never liked the term ‘Outsider Art’, so why am I using it? Good question. It gives me a chance to take a pop at it a sentence or two later! Art, of all things, should be inclusive. Outsider Art seems to imply exclusion or at least condescension (“they’ve had no training, you know”), as if there is an overarching Art Club, but you have to be a paid-up member to lunch there.
I can rail all I like, but Sabato ‘Sam’ Rodia who made these towers was an outsider by most counts. He was a Spanish-speaking, Italian-born immigrant who bought a house in a triangular shaped plot of land in Watts, one of the cheaper areas of Los Angeles. Then he started to express himself.
Over thirty years, working only with common hand tools (unless you count the passing trains on the local railway line), he created a National Historic Monument, now being considered for World Heritage status. You’ll find daytime pictures and more details on the California State Parks’ WordPress site.
Sam Rodia thought big. He understood the only way an unknown artist could hope to leave a mark. In his own words, ‘You gotta do something they never got ‘em in the world’.
I don’t know if Sam was a religious man, but the site has the look of a Gothic cathedral made out of giant, spiraling spider webs. In the dark, that is. In sunlight, the work takes on a playful character from its colourful mosaic of recycled glass, ceramic and stone. A heart motif appears often. Pictures of the artist show a man proudly wearing the broadest of smiles.
His innovative rebar, concrete and wire mesh technique was ahead of its times. Balancing for much of your spare time on a narrow, 99 ft tower with a 14 inch foundation without scaffolding would focus the mind on getting the right mix of materials. The towers proved resilient enough to survive a major earthquake. When threatened with demolition in the 1950s on the grounds they were unstable, they were tested to destruction by a crane (the crane failed, not the towers).
Sam’s title for his life’s work was Nuestro Pueblo, which is Spanish for ‘Our Place’. Despite appearing on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, once an outsider, always an outsider. Today we have a struggle even getting his name right. Wikipedia lists nine variations.
Richard Cándida Smith’s interesting article for the American National Biography asserts that Sam never used the name Simon, attributing this mistake to a L.A. Times journalist. Yet the post-truth version stuck: the site’s official name is ‘The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia’. Luckily, it seems that Sam’s head was not turned by fame or fortune. In the 1950s, he left Watts for Martinez after gifting the towers to a neighbour to use as a backdrop for a taco stall, and reputedly never went back.
We could argue that all art, not just that of outsiders, is created against the odds. Remember the old idea about how long it would take a monkey to type out the complete works of Shakespeare? I wonder if it’s more or less likely that the universe contains a second Watts Towers, made with identical recycled materials?
Shared for this week’s photo challenge: Against the Odds.