The man who brought life to an eclectic little complex of 10 bungalows called St. Elmo Village was mourned last week by more than 200 of his friends, relatives, students and members of the art community in a memorial service at First AME Church.
Rozzell Sykes, who died Dec. 18, a week before his 64th birthday, was remembered as a man who believed that by working with what one has, anything can be accomplished.
“One of the things he used to say was, ‘If all you make is a glass of Kool-Aid, make it your best glass. If you live in only a shoe box, make that shoe box the best,’ ” said nephew Roderick Sykes, who helped his uncle establish the village in the 1960s. “He was all about making the best of what you’ve got.”
Rozzell Sykes applied this philosophy to everything from painting and sculpture to one’s situation in life.
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Sykes spent several years in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles in 1961. He and his wife, Erma, settled into one of the turn-of-the-century bungalows on the 4800 block of St. Elmo Drive, at the time part of a battered, run-down complex whose back yards were filled with junk.
Shortly afterward, the couple found itself adopting five nieces and nephews, orphaned by the death of Erma Sykes’ sister. While he still struggled as a painter, Sykes and his wife made do with what they had and housed all five children in their one-bedroom house, readily adopting the role of parents.
Although Sykes is remembered by many as an artist and visionary, his adopted son, Benny Medina, remembers him as a loving family man, one who would wake his children to the sound of jazz records and pile them into the car to show them the beauty of their surroundings.
“He’d gather us up and take us wherever he went,” Medina said. “It was with Rozzell that I first saw the ocean, the mountains and the desert. His life was full, rich and spontaneous, and so was ours.”
Little by little, Sykes incorporated his love of beauty into the area around his home through his paintings and sculptures made of found materials. In 1964 he was joined by Roderick, then 18 and also a painter, and the two continued sprucing up the complex between the art lessons they taught.
Displaying his work along fences and on street corners, Sykes began meeting other local artists, who began frequenting the complex. A small colony of artists started to take shape.
In 1969, when the owner of the bungalows announced plans to sell the property for development, Sykes put together an art festival and raised $10,000 for a down payment to buy and save the homes. The landlord agreed to sell the property for $60,000, and in 1971, St. Elmo Village was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
During his tenure as a City Councilman representing the area, former mayor Tom Bradley helped Sykes acquire funding to fix up the village. He recalled the complex as in a deplorable state when he first went to meet with Sykes to hear his renovation plans.
“But the next time I came, there were paint colors everywhere, even on the ground,” Bradley said at the service. “I don’t think he allowed anything to go unpainted. He was a man of uncommon vision. He often said it didn’t matter whether you lived in a shoe box or a mansion, you can be all you want to be.”
Over the years, as artists continued moving into and visiting the complex, they helped Sykes transform the place into a wonderland of sculptures and murals surrounded by verdant gardens and multicolored sidewalks. Garages were painted bright colors and turned into workshops for painters, sculptors and musicians, while children used found materials to construct a sheltered fish pond at the rear of the complex.
A rear parking area became a common space used for art lessons and workshops for adults and children, attracting art students from around the city.
For many of the artists who found their way to St. Elmo Village, Sykes was a source of inspiration, a man who optimistically urged them to be themselves and shun negativity because it consumed “too much energy.”
Kaija Keel was a 17-year-old aspiring painter when she first met Sykes at a studio.
“Meeting him was the most important meeting of my life,” she said. “Rozzell taught me how to smile, and how to put my best foot forward.”
Although the cause of Sykes’ death is still unknown, relatives say he died in his sleep. In addition to four surviving adopted children, he is survived by his biological daughter, Rozzell Jean Sykes, his ex-wife, Erma Sykes, two sisters and four brothers.