Watts Towers Arts Center celebrates milestone anniversaries

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By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

WATTS — The Watts Towers Art Center campus is currently featuring a virtual celebration of milestone events to honor four institutions that have endured over the decades.

The campus is currently celebrating a milestone anniversary of the historic Watts Towers entitled “I Wanted to do Something Big, Celebrating 100 Years of the Watts Towers.”

Also being celebrated this month is “60 Years of the Watts Towers Art Center,” the 39th anniversary of the Drum Festival and the 44th annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival that features live video performances.

Due to COVID-19, the campus continues to be closed to the public and has shifted its celebration online where visitors can view videos of past events that  include art, music, drumming and dance.

The historic Watts Towers is a historic landmark that is composed of 17 major sculptures built by Sabato Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant and laborer who moved to Watts in 1921. He became obsessed with building the towers, which he fashioned out of steel and mortar and then spent decades embedding with pottery, broken plates, seashells, mirrors, figurines, mosaic tile, rocks and glass from broken bottles into the structure. He also used rails from nearby railroad tracks that served as the structure of the towers, which he applied with simple hand tools. Rodia called the structure “Nuestro Pueblo” (Our Town).

Over the decades, the colorful Watts Towers has become one of the most famous landmarks in the United States and is noted as the world’s largest single construction created by one individual. The towers draw visitors from all over the world who are always impressed by the massive structure that spirals up to the sky. Rodia’s famous words were, “I wanted to do something big and I did.”

It took Rodia 31 years to build his masterpiece, which he completed in 1954.

Rosie Lee Hooks, the executive director of the Watts Towers Art Center campus, said that the Watts Towers symbolizes the enduring resilience of the residents of the Watts community.

“The 100th anniversary of the Watts Towers symbolizes how phenomenal the Watts community is that realized that this Italian immigrant came to our community to build this fantastic work of art. Our Watts community has taken care of this important architectural structure and valued and appreciated it for years.

“It shows the humanity that exists in a community that is always looked at in a negative, inhumane way,” Hooks said.

Another popular institution is the Watts Towers Arts Center, which has remained a cultural hub for artists and musicians for six decades. The center has hosted art classes, presented workshops and musical performances.

“The Watts Towers Arts Center is as important as the Watts Towers because of all the master artists who have come through it’s doors and shared their gifts,” said Hooks, who added that the Watts Towers Arts Center has hosted nearly 700 international musicians and 1,000 visual artists.

“The Watts Towers Arts Center has hosted musicians such as Buddy Collette, Patrice Rushen, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscot, Nguyu Chancellor, Esther Phillips, Billy Preston and many more. I could go on and on about the music,” she said.

She added that master artists such as John Outterbridge, Artis Lane, Alison Saar, Betty Saar, Nony Olabisi, Charles Dickson, Dorothy Taylor and Dominique Moody have visited the center, which also has welcomed numerous mentors, writers and teachers.

“Nipsey Hussle came from us,” Hooks said.”He was about 12 years old and he wanted to do music but he couldn’t afford the classes. His mother found the classes at the Watts Towers Arts Center and this is where he learned how to do electronic beats with composer and producer MIchael Abels.

“Nipsey used to come every Saturday,” Hooks recalled. “He was a wonderful young man and he was very respectful. About a month before he died, he called me and said he wanted to do more music. He is just one of the talents that came out of the Watts Towers Arts Center,” said Hooks, who said the 43rd annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival was dedicated to Hussle and was titled “The Marathon Continues–a Memory of Nipsey Hussle.”

Hooks said that the art movement that blossomed at the Watts campus has inspired many local musicians, including bassist, pianist and composer Charles Mingus.

“There are more artists coming from the two square blocks in Watts than in any other place,” Hooks pointed out.  “And if they have been in the Watts Towers Arts Center, they are always with us.”

The campus is also celebrating the 39th anniversary of the annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum and the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festivals.

For more than three decades, the Watts Towers Day of the Drum has attracted drummers from all over the world who annually spend an afternoon beating out ancient rhythms that always gets spectators clapping and stomping their feet.

The all-day performances are highlighted with sessions of music, poetry and dance. Past event highlights have included a Yoruba ground blessing ceremony, Balinese and Afro Cuban performances, and an appearance by L.A. poet laureate Luis Rodriguez.

“The drum festival is a traditional music and dance with diverse cultures involved. You don’t find it anywhere else,” Hooks said.

The jazz festival kicks off the following day, which this year is celebrating its 44th anniversary. The festival features an afternoon of jazz performances and tributes and has featured master musicians such as Dwight Trible and Kahlil El’Zabar who have enthralled audiences with their musicianship.

Hooks said she is proud of the numerous musicians and artists who have visited and given performances and workshops at the Watts Arts Center campus. She especially thanks the people of Watts for supporting the campus for so many decades.

“Many accolades and congratulations to our Watts community for its love and care,” she said.

The virtual presentation of the towers celebrations can be viewed at www.culturela.org.

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.

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