From Outsider Art to Art In the Park

Updated: Sep 19

When I first landed in Los Angeles to pursue a career in Hollywood, the first attraction I would take friends visiting from out of town to see was not the Hollywood sign. Nor was it Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame or Disneyland. Because while all those attractions were appealing in their own right, visiting them would have to wait until I'd taken my visitor, sometimes directly from the airport, to the Watts Towers of Simone (Sabato) Rodia.

These soaring examples of outsider art fascinated me, and to the extent that everything in my new city seemed unfamiliar and vaguely threatening, the Towers, which many have observed resemble a three-masted ship, represented a familiar port and a safe harbor. Part of this was because Rodia had immigrated from Italy. I had been raised for a good part of my life there, and while it had been some years since I'd left, I still felt the tug of my (adoptive) mother country, whether by strands of spaghetti, the latest film by the Taviani brothers or the seemingly endless chatter and sense of community that would embrace me whenever I ventured into the the hub-bub of daily Roman life.

In addition to this nostalgia, which in Italian can be translated into 'homesickness,' there was the utter lunacy of Rodia himself. I felt I understood and even identified with what he was doing. He built the Towers by hand with rebar and cement, decorating them with the discarded gewgaws and pieces of ceramic he'd find along the train tracks. Some of these, it is rumored, were brought to him by little Charlie Mingus, who lived nearby. And why was Rodia doing this? I think he was declaring his existence, his place in the city and on the planet, drawing on both the sacred and the profane — the wooden towers dedicated to saints that villagers would parade through the streets of his hometown in Southern Italy, as well as the high-tension electric towers, radio transmitters and flashing billboards that stretch out across South Los Angeles still today. Rodia's decades-long determination, as well as his emotive use of found objects, was an inspiration, and the Watts Towers has remained a touchstone for me during my almost 40 years in Los Angeles. They are also possibly the single most important influence on Plant the Vine.

Another inspiration, one could even call it an antecedent, came from environmental artist Lauren Bon, whose Not a Cornfield carried forth an Indigenous philosophy that regards nature, and plants specifically, as teacher and humankind as student. The installation, which Bon called a living sculpture in the form of a field of corn, interpreted Los Angeles in a new light, bringing with it bold implications for the city. Perhaps the key was the site itself, the Los Angeles State Historic Park, smack in the middle of everything, where the proverbial sound of the tree falling in the forest can be heard by all.

It was at Bon's Metabolic Studio as well, while attending presentations by a diversity of artists and activists, and later at her silk-screening workshops, that many of the ideas of Plant the Vine came to be challenged and refined.

Then there were the books, too many to mention here, but standing out among them is The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History by Dolores Hayden, which proposes a reorientation to the practice of public history and explores how communities can tap the power of historic urban landscapes in order to nurture public memory. The book springs from and documents a program that Hayden directed at UCLA which, while still resonant, no longer exists. And Not a Cornfield was mowed down years ago, though it too continues to influence how we see the city. But the Towers remain, a place where Southern Italy meets South L.A., and which exists not far from the Willowbrook Community Garden. There, community members planted a small vineyard of historic Mission grapes in 2018. They are a reminder that community can emerge through the most unlikely of processes -- unintentional, unplanned and unlimited in the human potential that draws from the power of place.


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