September 1, 2011

Higher Calling

Interview by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

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For more than 30 years, from 1921–55, Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, accumulated, assembled and constructed the Watts Towers — 17 sculptures, including three massive towers reaching to the sky, that evoke both playful randomness and meticulous order. Paul Harris, professor of English in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, has visited, studied, written and taught about the towers for more than 20 years. To him, the Watts Towers, a national Historic Landmark, are a testament to one man’s workmanship, engineering talent, artistic vision and near mystical sense of spirituality. Harris was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

How did you first learn about the Watts Towers?
I heard about the towers as a boy from Don Cherry, a jazz trumpeter and friend of my father, who grew up in Watts. He was a musician in residence at Dartmouth College where my dad was a physics professor. Don talked about the towers in terms of creativity, inspiration and improvisation. Charles Mingus’ great autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog,” talks about the towers as an improvisational structure. When I came to California in 1984 to go to graduate school, the first place I wanted to go was Watts Towers.

The towers are made of things like pieces of glass bottles, drinking cups, seashells and bits of ceramic pottery, with cement, wire and steel rods holding it all together. That isn’t the usual stuff of art.
To me, the towers evoke art as technique: art is doing and making. The hand is technology. The towers are built with a man’s hands: Simon Rodia worked with no power tools.

Here you have an immigrant laborer using the skills he developed in his work — tile-setting, construction, cement-mixing. He uses those labor skills and combines them with the found material, and they are bound together in an aesthetic that has deep religious iconography in it. The more you look at the towers, the more you develop an increasingly tactile and physical relationship with them and the act of making them.

Rodia wasn’t a religious person in the traditional sense, but would you say the towers arise out of spiritual impulses nonetheless?
The towers feature a lot of images of hearts and rosettes, so there’s no question that there’s an Italian immigrant religious iconography. But it’s not proper Catholicism. He’s outside that tradition. To me, the towers are definitely a work of mourning, especially for his baby daughter who died, his series of marriages, his alcoholism and the bad years that preceded his buying the site.

I think of the towers as a spiritual place, because going there has become a private ritual for me. I try to put myself in a right frame of mind, and when I do and I’m open to it, yet another layer unfolds. It’s an icon to meditate on. So that is the spiritual part. It functions like a sacred site for me. Those places can be natural environments, and they can be humanly made.

That sounds a bit like Ignatian spirituality: finding god in all things, or examining one’s experience of god, yet Rodia never said he had religious reasons for building the towers.
There is an aspect of Ignatius that highlights the mystic. In that sense, the experience of God is the experience of mystery, and there is a discerning of spirits involved. The other phrase in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that resonates for me is “composition of place.” That is the act of imagining, or composing, a place and projecting yourself into it. The composition of place is exactly what Rodia did. He composed this place on a daily basis, in an incremental way. I always picture him going to sleep at night thinking about the problem he had to solve the next day: What should I do with that object, and what will I put in that place? I do find the towers consistent with that aspect of Ignatian spirituality. You can find God in all things, but some things help you find God more than others, and this is one that does!

When did you decide the Watts Towers could be an important subject of study for your students?
It was 10 or 12 years ago. I wanted to take students outside the classroom to sites that would produce different kinds of writing and thinking. The specific thing that led me to the Watts Towers was teaching Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities.” “Invisible Cities” is a series of imaginings of cities in an empire, and the cities have different qualities that define them. I thought of the Watts Towers as a kind of wondrous, imaginary place that had been made tangible. So I had students read the novel, go to the Watts Towers and write a short text imagining the Watts Towers as an invisible city. The towers are an inspiration for pedagogy.

Do the students find it easy to internalize the experience of their visit, as opposed to objectifying it?
Yes. When you walk around inside the property, you realize that there is no inside or outside. You can’t stand outside as spectator, so to speak. You are drawn in, and you keep noticing things. I’ve described that experience as “perception becomes cryptography,” because your perception is so saturated that everything you see becomes a sign to be interpreted. For students, the distance that they have as spectators looking at an object breaks down, and they have a visceral experience that takes time to sort out.

Do you think the experience of visiting a site that is within the Watts neighborhood is a valuable part of what you’re trying to teach?
It’s absolutely valuable. The towers are 12 minutes away from LMU by car, so they are really close. Ideally we’ll take the LA Metro there, then walk three-and-a-half blocks. Students are out of their comfort zone and arrive at the towers somewhat concerned. The towers are in a neighborhood, not a museum campus, with houses across the street. But the neighborhood is very quiet. In fact, when the Watts Riots occurred in 1965, the towers went untouched. The Watts Towers visit is definitely in keeping with LMU’s commitment to engage the city, get students off the bluff and provide a visceral learning experience beyond the classroom.

Do some students incorporate their experience of the neighborhood into their writing assignments?
Absolutely. For some of them, the fact that the towers are made out of “junk,” or items from the neighborhood, makes the towers seem perfectly constructed in that environment. Also, they often have expectations about Watts and what they’ll see there. When they arrive, seeing the towers changes some of their assumptions about what art is, and that, in turn, impacts their sense of place.

We can say what the Watts Towers are made of, where they are, who built them and when. but it seems difficult to answer the question, “What are the Watts Towers?” how do you answer that?
To me, the towers are the epitome of the endless fractal that has no inside and outside; they have quasi-infinite surface area and no volume and no center. There also is a crucial aspect of Rodia as an engineering architect, a laborer, a craftsman, a construction worker, a builder. They are a sculpture garden, we might say, because although the site is called the Watts Towers, there are 17 sculptures there. Then, just as they were made by accumulation, the more time you spend researching the towers and talking to people about them, you accumulate more and more knowledge, and you keep changing the pattern of the story that you use in talking about them. So, wherever your description starts, it will begin branching. It is an inspirational place.

Paul Harris says no two photos of the Watts Towers are ever alike. Take a look for yourself at a work of art that is an unending source of beauty, mystery and fascination.