Outsider Art: Watts Towers by Sabato Rodia at Dusk

Watts Towers at Dusk

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.

20 Replies to “Outsider Art: Watts Towers by Sabato Rodia at Dusk”

  1. I especially appreciated the part about how the crane, not the towers, failed. THAT was a happy ending! What an interesting story and, yes, I see the Gothic nature in the evening. The angle of the photo actually gives me a crick in my neck from looking up — and making us look up is one of those awesome qualities of Gothic. Thank you!

    1. My sweetheart took me to see it for a surprise. He was disappointed we missed the light due to heavy traffic but the darkness had its own qualities – plus a crescent moon and the evening star.

      1. In LA, there is no kind of traffic that isn’t heavy. In this case, it wasn’t a bad thing; that in-between time was a proper setting.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful post! Magnificent art, and I so agree with your objection of the term “outsider art.” However, being primates, being human, we always have “in” groups and “out’ groups. After looking Sabato Rodia’s art, I was reminded of Count Basie’s “If it sounds good, it is good.” Tweak that sentence a bit, and it could apply to the arts in general.

    1. The film about the Watts Towers has an old recording of him saying you have to be ‘good, good, good or bad, bad, bad’ to make people take attention.

      In and out (or you could say fashion) is a mixed blessing, isn’t it? – a commercial driver – but the best thing about art is we don’t all have to feel the same about any of it.

      1. Oh, yes! And I would add that for me, good art sends a kind of current through me. Such a wonderful feeling! I know this makes me sound like an art junkie, and I guess in a way I am.

  3. Wow. Fascinating. I had never heard of him, so, thank you.

    Art has always been warring groups and throughout the 20th century irreconcilable manifestos. We have the weird idea of avant-garde art, and everyone else will catch up, and in music serialism was avant garde until it was passe, but always minority. Francis Bacon was untrained. Alfred Munnings did very beautiful horses.

    1. You’ve reminded me of ‘Artist descending a staircase’, a radio play by Tom Stoppard. I’ve never heard it but I’ve read it several times. I wonder what made you think of Munnings?

      1. Munnings was absolutely Establishment, head of the Royal Academy, but an outsider to the Avant Garde. He is an example of art highly valued and completely disparaged. I can see beauty in his work even if I See why it was disparaged.

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