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Look around, there are towers of inspiration

by John Pixley

I had no idea. It was like when I see an altar set up for the Day of the Dead. With it being the season of Halloween and El Día de los Muertos, I thought of how, in the face of death, the lives of many whom I didn’t know but were so precious are celebrated. I see and get to know these beloved lives in bright colors—new once again in the merry dance of skeletons, against the black.

It was like when I go up to Mt. Baldy Village and am surprised to see a whole other world there. I don’t go for months and months, forgetting that it’s there, and then I’m amazed once again to see this nice little get-away less than half an hour away. Even if this world a short drive off isn’t a wintry white one, it’s always different.

It was like recently when I learned that a friend, who lost his partner just a few months earlier, has lung cancer. It was a shock—a rude, abrupt shock—coming after his loss and all the more because he wasn’t a smoker. I was also reminded, though, of the important, valuable role he has played in my life and also of both the strength and fragility of our lives.

But this was different. This was altogether different and altogether unique. I really did have no idea.

Even if I did have some idea when I ventured out towards Los Angeles with a friend on a recent warm Saturday when there was a lull in Claremont. I wanted to visit a place I’ve been wanting to go for years, the Watts Towers. I have always heard that the Watts Towers were quite remarkable, and I had seen plenty of photographs and films, but, as I kept exclaiming to my friend, “I had no idea!”

This was while we were on a guided tour—a tour that we happened to arrived just in time for and which made a real difference (well worth the $8 adult fee). Although one can get remarkably close to the towers without going into the property and seeing them that way is impressive, it is the details and seeing them up close and personal that make this piece of art so very remarkable.

It is an outstanding example of what is called “folk art.” The Watts Towers were literally a backyard project, done right behind a small house by an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, who was a tile maker and construction worker by trade. He was a bit of a roustabout and was hard-headed by nature and had no art training. The project, which Rodia had no help on—he didn’t want any—took about 30 years, ending around 1955.

Rodia, who was also called Sam and several other names and whose first wife left him because of his drinking, may have known zero about art, but he definitely had vision, not to mention drive. I remarked to my friend that he must have been OCD and on acid.

On the narrow, triangular plot, Rodia created something like a ship featuring the famed tall, mast-like spires and with everything covered in cement embedded with all sorts of broken colored glass and china. As Rodia told people, this was all inspired by the gothic cathedrals, with their tall, narrow spires, and other religious art and architecture that he saw when growing up in Italy.

Again, this was based on what he saw, not on any training in art and, again, while seeing the towers from outside the property makes quite an impression, it is the work on the walls and smaller structures inside that is really stunning. For example, one wall features the bottoms of green 7-Up and blue Milk of Magnesia bottles—remember them?—creating an eye-popping effect. There are pieces of china everywhere from hundreds of colored plates and blue-and-white Wedgewood sets. There are pieces of tea cups and mugs with handles left on, and even the undersides of structures are covered with colored bits of all kinds.

As I said, it is stunning, eye-popping and mind-boggling, and clearly the work of someone with unique vision and drive. One wall is embedded with shoes belonging to Rodia and his second wife, who left him because of him devoting so much time to his backyard project.

The small house is gone—burned down around one Fourth of July, leaving behind its foundation and fireplace—but there’s still more to this incredible story. When Rodia got tired of the project, he literally gave the property to a neighbor and moved north to Martinez. A bit later, the city of Watts wanted to raze the property, but a bunch of people protested, and the city promised to leave the towers up if they survived a stress test. During the test, the truck that was chained to the towers—not the towers—fell over.

So the towers, which Rodia walked away from after working on them for 30 years, are still there (though now with a few cables required by Cal OSHA), and I am amazed that I had not been there—yes, I really did have no idea!—and that there weren’t dozens of people visiting. Only one other guy was on the tour, although it was awesome having the place to ourselves! But that’s the other thing that makes the Watts Towers so very remarkable—they’re in the middle of a neglected and drab, blighted area and right there, right on the sidewalk, with people living just across the narrow street. While I was there, a neighbor was playing loud ranchero music.

As much as there is going on here in Claremont, with all sorts of creative activities of note, Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers are a striking reminder, in a place far and not so far off, of the power of vision and passion. They stick up and poke out with the unlikeliest of bright colors when life is a bit too boring, a bit too expected and a bit too tiring.

The towers have certainly given Watts, which has seen more than its share of beleaguerment, a poke. Next door is an arts center inspired by them, where the tour begins and ends and where there is the buzz of community and creativity. When my friend and I were looking around the gallery, there was a piano lesson going on at the center of the room.

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