James Woods doesn’t come close to fitting the standard profile of the creative artist. The stocky president of the Watts Community Housing Corp. does define his life as “performance art,” although most authorities would consider it an extremely loose application of the term--even for that broadly defined artistic genre.
But his may be even more of a maverick vision than the creative artists already profiled in this series. Rather than use his business acumen and willingness to engage in bureaucratic infighting to build luxury town houses or corner mini-malls, Woods has focused on furnishing low-cost housing designed to create a stimulating environment for artists.
“I am looking at ways by which I can provide the tools for the artist to function,” explained Woods, 51, in the residents’ gallery of the Guy L. Miller Jr. housing development in Watts. “I think the system must provide a place, the tools and the community for an artist to work in. That has to be done, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Woods’ ultimate goal is developing 1,000 units of housing, but his short-term objective is completing the renovation of a complex of 15 studio lofts and a community art center just east of the downtown area. Originally scheduled to open earlier this year, the project recently cleared a major hurdle when he rounded up private and nonprofit investors to cover 15% of the estimated $1.5 million in construction costs.
“I have the values of the society that we’re taught--that is, the entrepreneurship of our culture,” Woods said. “I accepted the doctrine that people have talked about in our philosophy, that you must be bold and go out there and achieve it.
“That was capitalism speaking all the time, but what about cultural democracy?
“Art is a tool for social change if you’re trying to achieve cultural democracy,” he said. “I think of myself as a cultural developer.”
Woods grew up in Houston and worked as a fine-artist model while attending high school there. Upset by segregation in the South, he moved to California in the mid-'50s and was graduated from USC with a degree in business administration and accounting.
But the California move neither resolved his inner turmoil nor provided job opportunities after his graduation. “I did not find paradise in Los Angeles as I had thought I would, that my problems would be eliminated because I would have the freedom to move,” he said. He turned again to modeling as a source of income.
“Art was always a clarification of my goals,” he said. “When I got confused, I went to the museum or to creative environments.
“The artist was the prognosticator of the society, the person that would help you solve your problems by seeing the things in the culture.”
After leaving military service, Woods spent three crucial years traveling overseas in the early ‘60s. He credits a year spent teaching English at a technical institute in Khartoum, Sudan, as a major maturing experience.
“It enabled me to begin to see my life as performance art--not as an artist but as what I was doing was performance art,” Woods recalled. “It had the richness and clarification of the artist and the follow-through. The desire to hold on to the vision you have despite all odds is what performance art is all about.”
He briefly gave up his American citizenship to live in Nigeria, but returned here late in 1963. Two years later, while working for a savings and loan firm, he became involved with local artists in founding the nonprofit Studio Watts Workshop.
That organization initiated a series of arts programs and events that have become annual institutions in Watts. The workshop evolved into the Watts Community Housing Corp. in 1968 and entered the housing field by developing the Miller complex on a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant.
Woods himself has received National Endowment for the Arts grants to direct plays, stage a dance performance piece and document contemporary folk art in Watts. Two decades of focusing on community art work have made him a national figure among artists and a thorn in the side of administrators. He’s currently embroiled in a semantic squabble over federal housing regulations at the Miller complex, but the impasse won’t sway him from his ultimate goals.
“What I’m doing is no different from what every socially conscious person wants done,” Woods said. “I think of myself as an artist/activist and I’m collaborating with artists to achieve their goals. Because I live in a bureaucracy that does not look at life holistically in that manner, I have difficulties.”