High School Interns Help with Conservation at Watts Towers

August 20, 2012

This summer, an exciting project has been happening at the Watts Towers Conservation Center. With support from the Ahmanson Foundation and in partnership with the UCLA/Getty Master’s Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, LACMA created an eight-week internship during which three graduates of the UCLA/Getty Program are paired with two recent graduates of Verbum Dei High School. Verbum Dei’s Jesus Real and Hector Morataya worked with UCLA/Getty alums Molly Gleeson, Lily Doan, and Suzanne Morris. Here are some of their thoughts about their experiences so far.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–1954, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

from Lily Doan and Molly Gleeson:

Being newcomers to this project, we spent the first week training under Watts Towers Conservation staff, and we are now responsible for teaching Hector and Jesus about the ongoing care and preservation activities on the site and for introducing them to the field of art conservation and historic preservation. Our work this summer will focus on a condition survey and the remedial treatment of two of the smaller structures (the A and B Towers) and the overhead connecting elements throughout the site, as well as archival research on the two smaller towers. We’re excited to be introducing Hector and Jesus to this work, which is very timely, as both are heading off to college in the fall and will soon be making decisions about their future career paths.

Up on the scaffolding, Hector Morataya cleans a detached green bottle glass fragment found on an overhead element.

from Jesus Real and Hector Morataya:

As students from Verbum Dei, a prominent institute in the Watts community, an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the world of conservation at a site so (literally) close to home was one that we could not pass up. This opportunity was made known to us through a teacher in our art history class, where we took a visit out to the towers themselves and learned about their history in the community as well as a bit about Sam Rodia. Now that we are actually working and learning new things each day on site, the entire experience seems only greater. In the first two weeks alone, we learned so much about the philosophies of conservation and the importance of preserving this historical and cultural landmark. Even more incredible is that we both are taking in this entire experience within our very own community. This is one aspect within the entirety of the project that we value greatly. We hope to keep up our work with the project and take in every part of the experience to our full advantage.

Jesus Real checking for loose fragments on an overhead element.

LACMA, the NEA, and Watts

February 22, 2012

Tomorrow night, LACMA’s CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan will be in conversation with Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Their conversation (free to the public) will touch on a number of topics related to the NEA’s national agenda, including a few topics near and dear to LACMA and Los Angeles’s hearts. Not least of those topics is the NEA’s Our Town grant program, which recently awarded the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) funds for master planning and design work in the Watts community. LACMA, as you may have read, has also been in Watts for the last year, working with the DCA and the community on plans for the preservation of Watts Towers.

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–1954, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The Our Town grant is not earmarked for the towers but rather for another project in the area—the repurposing of the Historic Watts Train Station, originally built in 1904 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This was a highly trafficked stop along the historic Red Line route, in the era before the city’s massive freeway system turned L.A. into the apotheosis of “car culture.”

Watts Station, Los Angeles

Plans for the train station and two “artist pathways” are still in the early stages and are being led by a local grassroots organization known as Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), which is focused on creating jobs and improving the overall quality of life for residents of Watts. LACMA is serving as an arts advisor for the project, which will turn the site into a Visitors Center and gateway to Watts that highlights the neighborhood’s impact on the arts and culture of Los Angeles. As plans develop, we look forward to sharing more of the WLCAC and DCA’s progress on this project. You can also hear more about both LACMA and the NEA’s support for this project during tomorrow’s Director’s Series event, among other topics.

Scott Tennent

Exploring Possible Worlds with Slanguage

July 6, 2011

About ten years ago, Mario Ybarra Jr, Karla Diaz, and Juan Capistran founded Slanguage Studio in Wilimington, California. Slanguage began modestly as an expanded studio providing work space for the artists as well as an open space for the community to come in draw, sculpt, dance, or just tell stories and hang out. Over the years, Slanguage Studio has evolved into a gallery, a site for workshops and events, as well as a residency that recently brought in artists Christopher Rivera and Radames “Juni” Figueroa from the East Coast and Puerto Rico, respectively.

When LACMA decided to collaborate with Watts House Project, an artist-driven and neighborhood-centered project across the street from Watts Towers, the opportunity to connect WHP with Slanguage seemed obvious. Working with Edgar Arceneaux, Will Sheffie, and Trinidad Ruiz of WHP, as well as the incredibly talented architects of Escher GuneWardena, Ybarra and Diaz have taken on a challenging collaboration.

I recently went down to Watts to discuss the project with the artists as well as Possible Worlds, a small exhibition that opened just last weekend at LACMA, in which the artists have curated out of the museum’s permanent collection.

Rita Gonzalez, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art

Watts Towers’ California Color

June 6, 2011

The iconic view of the Watts Towers shows the massive spirals silhouetted against the sky, emphasizing the magnitude of Simon Rodia’s artistic and engineering marvel.  What’s missing from this image, however, is the exuberant color of Rodia’s mosaics, which line the walls, archways, and even the towers themselves.

Watts Towers, detail

Watts Towers, detail

Many of the fragments that make up these vibrant designs come from local pottery manufacturers, whose solid-color dinnerware inspired a national craze in the 1930s.  The trend started in Southern California, where companies like Brayton Laguna and Catalina Pottery began producing vivid colored earthenware in late 1920s and early 1930s.

Detail of the Watts Towers showing Metlox mark

Detail of the Watts Towers showing Vernon Kilns mark

Daniel Gale Turnbull for Vernon Kilns. Ultra California coffee pot, c.1937, LACMA, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition Fund and partial gift of Bill Stern

Larger companies, such as J. A. Bauer Pottery Company, Vernon Kilns, Metlox Manufacturing Company, Gladding, McBean & Company, and Pacific Clay Products began to produce their own versions, marketing them across the country. Brand names like Metlox’s Poppytrail (visible in the plate above) and Gladding’s Franciscan traded on romantic images of California’s beauty.  Their success spurred Eastern and Midwestern potteries to launch imitations—most famously the Fiesta line, introduced by West Virginia’s Homer Laughlin China Company in 1936. The California Pottery Guild, founded as a joint advertising venture by the five major Los Angeles-area producers, worked to remind retailers that the fashion for “California color” had originated in the Golden State.

Watts Towers, detail

Watts Towers, detail

Louis Ipsen and Victor F. Houser for J. A. Bauer Pottery Company. Stacking storage dishes, c. 1932, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition Fund and partial gift of Bill Stern

The heyday of California pottery overlaps with Rodia’s construction of the towers (1921–1955), so it’s no surprise that fragments of the characteristic colors and deco-style lines of their products, which would have been inexpensive and plentiful, pop up so frequently in his work. The bright ridges in the archway above may very well have come from a set of Bauer stacking dishes, like this example from LACMA’s collection.  While the towers as a whole demonstrate the powerful vision of one man, the individual pieces give us a glimpse of the material world that surrounded him.  The exhibition California Design, 1935–1960: “Living in a Modern Way, which opens in October, will take a broader look at this world, including the designers behind the colorful pottery that was so appealing to Rodia and his contemporaries.

Staci Steinberger, Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design

The Engineer Who Saved Watts Towers

March 29, 2011

One evening last month I drove to a neighborhood near Otis College to visit Bud Goldstone and his wife Arloa in hopes of retracing Bud’s long history with the Watts Towers.  To give you a sense of Bud’s relationship to Simon Rodia and Towers, he is the proud owner of Rodia’s gas fitter pliers, which the artist used to build his sculptures!

Who wouldn’t want to meet a man who concludes every email with the following signature: “Bud Goldstone; OSU, Purdue Aero Engr; AIC Pro. Assoc.-retired; Apollo Engineering, ‘The Los Angeles Watts Towers’, pub by Getty Museum & Conservation Institute; “Secrets of Watts Towers”; SPACES Archives”

Bud Goldstone

In order to understand what all of that means, I sat in their kitchen enjoying Bud’s passion for the history of the Towers. Trained as an aeronautical engineer Norman J. “Bud” Goldstone had been in Los Angeles for about ten years when he read an article in the paper about Rodia’s sculptures. Bud was “not so impressed by the towers” and, at first, didn’t get caught up in their artistic mastery; it was more that the published quotes by his colleagues—other engineers—were to his way of thinking just not accurate. He felt that the engineers “didn’t know what they were talking about,” and he wanted to see for himself what was going on. It was this desire for professional accuracy that first urged him to drive to 107th Street in South Central to see what these monuments were about and what the engineers were saying. Ultimately, he saw ways in which he might make a contribution to the project.

Bud had no idea that this first visit would eventually lead to a lifetime of devoted advocacy and work for Simon Rodia’s environment. Made of concrete, metal, and miscellany, Bud discovered what he likes to call “a three-dimensional doodle.”

During our visit Bud didn’t spend much time talking about his decisive action in 1959 that ultimately saved the Towers and was the primary reason why they are still standing today (recounted in more depth in The Los Angeles Watts Towers). Set by the City of Los Angeles Building and Safety Department for demolition in 1957, by 1959, a grassroots effort was growing to save the Towers. Because Bud had engineering expertise he was pulled into the effort, which comprised artists, community members, students, and activists. On October 10, 1959 a load test was conducted in front of more than 1,000 people; the experimental stress test used 10,000 pounds of pressure to pull down the Tower. The tower bowed, but did not fall, before the truck and the beam involved with the test started to bend and bow. Witnessing that the Towers were not going to be destroyed, the city defined the test a success for the Preservationists. Engineer Bud was the hero of the day!

Bud told us when the Building and Safety Department voted for the load test, fifteen were against and sixteen were for it.

Bud had the honor and distinction, he said while we sat in his apartment, of meeting the artist, Simon Rodia (1879–1965). Bud recalls taking him to dinner on two occasions and that Rodia was “wonderful,” “lovable,” and that the two of them “had a ball together.” I will remember my evening with Bud and Arloa in a very similar light!

Brooke Davis Anderson, Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning

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