Warhol meets Watts at downtown L.A.'s Pharmaka gallery

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Warhol and what?

No, that’s “Warhol and Watts.”

DeAnthony Langston, program director for the youth organization Urban Compass in Watts, loves that the name of Saturday’s one-off exhibition at the Pharmaka art gallery in downtown L.A. causes people to do a double-take.

“Warhol and Watts,” Langston says, savoring the words. “It’s like peanut butter and jelly — and mustard.”

Urban Compass’ tiny office is in the back of Verbum Dei High School, a Jesuit-run institution on South Central Boulevard that represents something of an oasis in a troubled neighborhood. Founded in 2004, Urban Compass brings kids from the nearby 112th Street Elementary School and other underserved areas to Verbum Dei for after-school programs; the group also sponsors field trips, a filmmaking workshop and a summer camp program.

“This is the West Coast Harlem right here,” Langston says, gesturing at the bleak streets during a recent conversation in the schoolyard of 112th Street Elementary, his own alma mater. “We have similar histories and traditions, and if we can bring back all of that through the fine arts, it will help the community.”


As a result of a serendipitous partnership between Urban Compass, Pharmaka and investment banker-turned-art collector Richard Weisman, Warhol and Watts will come together in the form of an exhibition featuring the works of pop art icon Andy Warhol and Watts elementary school kids. Using photographs of themselves, the students created the effect of Warhol’s silk-screens of various pop culture images and icons by applying bright-colored paints to the photos.

Specifically, the kids got inspiration from a series of Warhol portraits of sports figures commissioned by Weisman, who was a friend of the artist.

“I commissioned him to do this set of athletes because, generally speaking, the worlds of art and sports don’t mesh that well,” says Weisman, who is lending the portraits to Pharmaka for the exhibition. The series includes the likenesses of Dorothy Hamill, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Chris Evert and others.

Though the Warhols aren’t for sale, the kids’ artwork will be, for $15 to $100. Proceeds will benefit Urban Compass and the nonprofit Pharmaka, which sponsors educational and community programs.

But just how did Warhol come to meet Watts?

It starts with Langston, 42, who grew up in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. He says that many of his childhood friends either ended up in prison or dead.

But Langston was lucky: Through a friend, he was introduced to the basketball coach and the principal at Verbum Dei. The principal offered Langston a deal: He could attend Verbum Dei if he worked at Sunday bingo games to help pay his tuition. (The late sportswriter-sportscaster Bud Furillo also chipped in to offset Langston’s expenses; the two met when Langston was a 10th-grader and Furillo a speaker at a Verbum Dei banquet.)

Langston went on to graduate from Cal State Long Beach and become a professional basketball player in Europe and Japan. He later returned to Verbum Dei as a coach, and the connection led to his involvement with the board of Urban Compass. In 2005, the board appointed Langston as the executive director of the organization, a position he held for two years before becoming full-time program director.

Weisman, who is as much a lover of sports as art, met Langston through mutual friends in the basketball world: former NBA player Stan Love and his son, Kevin Love, who played college basketball with the UCLA Bruins and now plays with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Stan Love encouraged Langston to approach Weisman about helping Urban Compass; in turn, Weisman suggested doing something with the Warhol sports portraits and got his friends at Pharmaka involved.

Weisman loves connecting art with underserved kids — in fact, to ensure that Warhol actually goes to Watts, Weisman is also lending the athlete portraits for a brief exhibition at Verbum Dei on Monday and Tuesday, open only to the school community.

“It opens up a whole world of art to people who never set foot in museums,” he says. “They may see art as only being for rich people, or educated people, and then they see these paintings of sports people and all of a sudden it isn’t that way anymore; it’s kind of cool.”

To help the kids think like Warhol, Theresa Gartland, Urban Compass’ curriculum and program director, brought in an artist friend, Rachel Breithaupt. Besides using their own faces as templates, Breithaupt taught them about Warhol’s work with pop images, including the Campbell’s soup can, by having them do work incorporating the commercial image of one of their own favorite foods: bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“I wanted to keep it loosely attached to Warhol, but I was more interested in the process itself,” Breithaupt says. “I really just want to get the kids exposed to the arts. They aren’t bad kids, but they come from bad places — they’re tough. Do we want to sit down for an art history lesson, or do we want to get some paint into their hands?”

-- Diane Haithman

Pharmaka, 101 W. 5th St., L.A.; 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. $30 to $100. (213) 689-7799.

Top photo: Anthony Dixon at work in the Urban Compass program at Verbum Dei High School. Bottom photo: Self-portrait by Emely Garcia. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times