Stretching Out into the Community: Five Key Watts Artists Who Helped Shape American Art

Aerial view of Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" ab s11
“Between 1960 and 1975, Los Angeles witnessed the rise of a new community of Black visual and plastic artists. Comprising several dozen activist artists, this cohort shared many experiences familiar to the informal networks of underground jazz musicians and radical poets living in Los Angeles during this time.” <br> — Daniel Widener. "Black Arts West," p. 186

The vibrant multimedia expression of assemblage art, poetry, theater and music noted above by Daniel Widener was the West Coast edition of the Black Arts Movement. This explosive cavalcade of culture is often called the Watts Renaissance. As much as the movement became known following the 1965 Watts Riots, the core artists who were its vanguards had been quietly and steadily emerging from the beginning of the 1960s.

The Watts Renaissance was remarkable for how the arts overlapped and collaborated across mediums and interrelated venues. Organizations like the Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts, Watts Tower Arts Center, Watts Happening Coffeehouse and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra hosted frequent events that brought the poets, artists and musicians into dialog with the residents of South Central Los Angeles to work together and transform their neighborhood, and from there, the world at large. Moreover, political groups like the Black Panthers and US Organization did frequent collaborations with these artists, as did the 1970s movement of Black filmmakers from UCLA, better known as the L.A. Rebellion

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From the Ground Up

Before spotlighting a few key artists who played pivotal roles, it's essential to discuss the centrality of the Watts Towers and how the spirit of this iconic structure was a major influence for all of the projects that unfolded in Watts and beyond from the 1960s on. 

The fascinating story of Simon Rodia and the 33 years he spent building the Watts Towers is, of course well known, but the storied artist and important participant of the Watts Renaissance, Judson Powell, offers extra insight into their significance. Powell was one of the first teaching artists at the Watts Tower Arts Center in the early 1960s and a close friend and colleague of Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. 

Powell expressed in the 2014 book, “Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts,”  that what “makes the Towers such a unique structure is that it’s not a building; it’s a molded work. This man created this structure from the ground up, one layer at a time. We usually think of building as going up in a linear fashion — a frame going up first, and then something being applied to that frame. This is not constructed that way. It's constructed laterally — one ring at a time. Hence, he's developing his own ladder as he climbs. The neighbors say they saw the fence go up first, and then suddenly, from behind the fence, things started to rise. The concept of lateral construction is consistent with stretching out into the community by collecting from the community and involving them in his finished work. So, everybody living in the area of Watts from 1920 through 1940 has something from their personal families embedded in the structure. That's why they all feel they are a part of it; it belongs to them because they are indeed represented on it. So, he involved the whole community in his act. That's one of the things that makes it so viable.” 

The spirit of the Watts Towers stretching out into the community and involving everyone in the neighborhood in the process is a core zeitgeist of the entire Watts Renaissance, whether it connects to the Assemblage Art Movement of Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, David Hammons, John Outterbridge, John Riddle and Judson Powell, the poets of the Watts Writers Workshop, the Surrealist Jazz Poet Jayne Cortez at Studio Watts or the intergenerational musicians playing with Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. As Steve Isoardi notes in his book “The Dark Tree,” there were even many times at the height of the Watts Renaissance when all of these luminaries were together in the same room. 

Moreover, the Watts Towers also became the location for an Arts Center. Sarah Schrank writes in her book, “Art in the City,” that the Watts Towers Art Center is “a separate building originally established by the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts in 1959 (while) serving community youth as a space for free arts and music education since 1961.” Over the years, the Watts Towers Art Center has been under the direction of seminal artists like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. Artists like Judson Powell and poets like Kamau Daaood have also worked there extensively over the years. The Watts Towers are so influential that when the Getty published the catalog book for the exhibit, “Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980,” they put a silhouette of the Watts Towers on the cover.  

Feeding off the spirit of the Watts Towers, “assemblage art,” Widener writes, “mixed folk-art traditions and avant-garde experimentation. Assemblages transformed the familiar, forcing new looks at old objects. In a neighborhood surrounded by junkyards and plagued by infrequent garbage collection, junk art asked the community to reexamine the true value of the objects around it.” 

The Black Assemblage Art Movement rising out of Watts from the ground up remains relevant 55 plus years after it began. One of the youngest participants from that era, Timothy Washington, had his first solo show at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in 2014. Moreover, Betye Saar is 93 and continues to produce work and show internationally. 

Betye Saar

(L-R) Alison Saar, Michael Govan, Director of LACMA and artist Betye Saar pose during the Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 opening event held at the Getty Center on October 2, 2011 | Ryan Miller/WireImage via Getty Images
(L-R) Alison Saar, Michael Govan, Director of LACMA and artist Betye Saar pose during the Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 opening event held at the Getty Center on October 2, 2011 | Ryan Miller/WireImage via Getty Images

Betye Saar grew up watching Simon Rodia build the Towers. She would pass by them with her grandmother while he worked on them. She remembers seeing the Towers from different vantages: both riding by on the Pacific Electric streetcar and walking around the neighborhood. Her grandmother lived on 113th Street just a few blocks south of the Towers. In the 2014 book, “Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts,” Saar said, “As a kid with a really big imagination, the spires inflamed that imagination, and I'm sure had something to do with my becoming an artist at a later time.”  

Saar was born in 1926 and spent her childhood going back and forth between Watts and Pasadena after her father passed in 1931. Following her father's death, Saar spent many of her formative years with her great aunt Hattie Parson Keys in Pasadena. Saar's 1972 mixed media assemblage piece, “Record for Hattie,” pays tribute to her. Her great aunt was an elegant woman, and the piece repurposes an antique jewel box to celebrate Hattie's spirit.

Saar's art career started at Pasadena City College before she transferred to UCLA. Then, in 1958, she went to California State University Long Beach to begin her graduate studies. Saar's early interests were in design and printmaking, but as her career went on, she started collecting images of African American folk culture and stereotyped advertisements from the Jim Crow era, which she began to recycle and defamiliarize into assemblage pieces. Her iconic 1972 piece, “Liberation of Aunt Jemina,” as Daniel Widener writes, “offered a riff on the oft-reproduced portrait of Huey Newton as an armed potentate perched inside a wicker throne, while suggesting that, as in Vietnam, even the most unthreatening figure could be a warrior.”   

As Saar’s career progressed, she used mixed media assemblage to subvert stereotyped ideas of race and gender. Through the 1970s and into the '80s and beyond, Saar began to show her work worldwide while receiving fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim and other comparable honors. She's taught at UCLA and the Otis College of Art and Design, and her most recent solo show was at LACMA in 2019.  

Noah Purifoy

Noah Purifoy was recruited by the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts to set up and run the Watts Towers Art Center (WTAC). Working closely with fellow artist Judson Powell and teacher Sue Welsh, the WTAC started slowly in the early 1960s. “Purifoy, who had a background in social work, ran the WTAC with a sense of community activism. While much of the towers’ publicity had focused on preservation and aesthetics, he insisted that the WTAC function as a material connection between the towers and the community of Watts,” writes Sarah Schrank. 

Purifoy believed in using art as a tool for social change and in sharing cultural authority.  Furthermore, as Judson Powell stated above, the Watts Towers belonged to everyone, so it was only right to create a community center where children could learn the arts and foster their connection to their neighborhood and, from there, the world. Purifoy himself went on to become one of the most significant assemblage artists and his time at the Watts Towers catalyzed his artistic evolution. 

Noah Purifoy was born in Alabama in 1917. After earning his bachelor's and master's degree in social work, he worked as a social worker in Cleveland before coming to Los Angeles in 1950 for a job at the L.A. County Hospital. In 1953 he became the first African American to enroll as a full-time student at Chouinard Art Institute, now CalArts. By 1956, Purifoy had earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chouinard. His art career quickly evolved from here. Insight from his close friend Judson Powell further explains why Purifoy remains held in such high esteem.

“Noah was an amazing man,” Powell says in the same book he is quoted from above. “He could transform something before your very eyes, just sit there and weave something out of nothing. And I thought that was a fantastic skill.” Powell notes that Purifoy’s recycling skills are based on the ideas of George Washington Carver of finding, adapting and creating. “He to me represented the essence of Dr. Carver,” Powell exclaims, “utilizing materials that were generally considered to be thrown away or castaways and turning them into viable products.”  

Immediately following the 1965 Watts Riots, Purifoy and Powell wandered around Watts, collecting a few thousand pounds of debris and eventually turned it into the assemblage exhibit, “66 Signs of Neon.” The exhibit featured charred remains from the Riots, and it was initially displayed nearby at Markham Junior High School. The public response was so strong that it eventually traveled all the way to Washington, D.C. and attracted worldwide attention. A book of poetry accompanied the exhibit. Purifoy left the Watts Towers Art Center in the late 1960s, and Judson Powell went on to found the Compton Communicative Arts Academy.

Purifoy continued to create work and also served for 11 years with the California Arts Council, where he initiated art programs in the state prison system. For the last 15 years of his life, he lived out by Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, creating ten acres full of large-scale sculpture using junk materials. Now known as the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, there’s even a famous Huell Howser episode where Purifoy tells his story. Though Purifoy passed in 2004, his work continues to be honored. In 2015, LACMA hosted a retrospective: Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada.

John Outterbridge

John Outterbridge at a Watts Towers meeting June 15, 1985 | Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
John Outterbridge at a Watts Towers meeting June 15, 1985 | Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

John Outterbridge is another seminal assemblage artist, and his career connected the dots between the Compton Communicative Arts Academy and the Watts Towers Art Center. Born in North Carolina in 1933, his father made a living recycling metal equipment and machine parts. 

Outterbridge moved to Los Angeles in 1963. He first discovered the Watts Towers on a Sunday afternoon drive a few months after moving to LA. He was driving on Alameda, a street that he loved because it had a lot of junkyards. He would visit these junkyards and find scrap he could use for projects. While driving, he turned west on 103rd Street and gradually saw the Towers in the distance. He had heard of the Watts Towers, but the first time he saw them, it was serendipitous. After his childhood experiences with his father, he loved the spirit of the Watts Towers immediately.   

Moreover, because Outterbridge grew up in the South, he was accustomed to seeing people decorate old fences using bottle caps, buttons and eggshells. In the book, “Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts,” Outterbridge says, “in the South, where I grew up, it was very important also to recycle everything and to live by that. So I grew up with assemblage (as) just a way of being, a language. And it told me very clearly that human beings are extremely creative as organisms. And that we refer to as assemblage, what we refer to as art — the most important thing that pulsates in us — belongs to everyone. That’s how we save humanity. It’s not just art, but it’s a way that we live.”  

Shortly after the 1965 Watts Riots, Outterbridge revisited the Towers, where he met Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell. Outterbridge had created a few assemblage pieces earlier in Chicago before he came to L.A., and when he saw what Purifoy and Powell were doing, they all quickly became close friends. Outterbridge started producing a lot of work and began teaching at the Watts Towers around this time. 

Shortly after Purifoy and Powell’s “66 Signs of Neon,” Outterbridge began producing pieces like “Song for My Father” and “Traditional Hang-Up.” Historian Daniel Widener notes that Outterbridge’s work excels at examining “the problematic historical relationship between African Americans and Christianity, as well as the violent disjuncture between the American promise of equal treatment and the violent repression of black Americans.”  

Outterbridge ended up working closely with Judson Powell at the Compton Communicative Arts Academy from 1969 to 1975, and in 1975 he was selected as the director of the Watts Towers Art Center, where he served until 1992. In addition to his prolific art career, Outterbridge has been a stalwart activist and advocate for Black Art on the West Coast and worldwide. In 2012, the California African American Museum awarded Outterbridge with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Like Betye Saar, Outterbridge is still alive and his work is more relevant than ever. 

Jayne Cortez

Though Jayne Cortez was born in Arizona in 1936, she moved to Watts when she was seven and attended Compton College. Much of the lore about the Watts Renaissance spotlights the poets of the Watts Writers Workshop, and rightfully so. The Watts Writers Workshop produced poets like Eric Priestley, Quincy Troupe, Ojenke, Kamau Daáood and the Watts Prophets, but Cortez's work in Watts predates all of them.

Cortez studied drama at the Ebony Showcase Theater in 1960, and in 1964 she was the co-founder of Studio Watts Workshop with arts patron James Wood. Steve Isoardi writes in “The Dark Tree” that Cortez was the first poet to perform with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. She was briefly married to free jazz impresario Ornette Coleman and years later, in the 1980s, she formed a band The Firespitters with her son from Ornette, Danardo Coleman. In addition to her 12 books, she recorded close to a dozen albums. Cortez’s surrealist poetry worked especially well accompanied with music. The seminal 1982 documentary, “Poetry in Motion,” includes rare footage of Cortez performing. 

American poet Jayne Cortez poses for a June 1996 portrait in New York City, New York. | Bob Berg/Getty Images
American poet Jayne Cortez poses for a June 1996 portrait in New York City, New York. | Bob Berg/Getty Images

When I interviewed poet Wanda Coleman in 2013, she told me that Jayne Cortez was her biggest influence. When Cortez died at 78 in 2012, Coleman told the Los Angeles Times, “She was the first African American woman I met who refused to give in to negatives and difficulties. She was an inspiration to me. Those were some mighty high heels, and walking behind them has been an effort.”  

In books like “On the Imperial Highway” and “Coagulations,” her technicolor imagery crackles with lyrical musicality. Poems like "There It Is" demonstrate this:

“My friend / they don’t care / if you’re an individualist / a leftist a rightist / a shithead or a snake / They will try to exploit you / absorb you  confine you / disconnect you  isolate you / or kill you.” 

D.H. Melhem’s 1990 book, “Heroism in the New Black Poetry,” spotlights Cortez along with Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki R. Madhubuti, Dudley Randall and Sonia Sanchez. Melhem’s 30-page profile of Cortez is deeply insightful for anyone interested in her work. Her final words at the end of Melhem’s interview share her thoughts about the role of the poet: “I think that poets have the responsibility to be aware of the meaning of human rights, to be familiar with history, to point out distortions, and to bring their thinking and their writing to higher levels of illumination.” 

Cortez's blunt, crisp, poignant verse foreshadowed 1990s performance poetry and the rise of slam poetry and spoken word. Simultaneously, Cortez has been considered a progenitor of avant-garde 21st century Black poetry. All in all, she is considered a major voice of the Black Arts Movement along with other women writers like Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. Cortez moved to New York City in the late 1960s and lived the rest of her life there, but her formative years in Watts at the start of her career qualify her as a major player in the Watts Renaissance.

What started as the Watts Renaissance in the 1960s not only stretched out into the community from the Watts Towers, but it grew out of the earlier Central Avenue Jazz scene and then eventually moved across Los Angeles to Leimert Park; there were also outposts of Black Art in Compton and Venice as well as in Altadena. Following the precedent of these earlier spaces, venues like the Brockman Gallery, Compton Communicative Arts Academy, the World Stage and 5th Street Dicks carried on the torch that was ignited originally in Watts. Similar to what Simon Rodia did with the Watts Towers, the Watts Renaissance artists used the materials around them to turn everyday events and objects into something extraordinary and timeless that stretched out into the community and around the world. 

Top Image: Aerial view of Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center"

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