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History, future in focus at Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative

Simon Rodia was known as a man of one remarkable action — building the Watts Towers by himself over 34 years — and very few public words.

When the Italian immigrant stone mason, whose real name is Sabato Rodia, was first interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1939, communication went so poorly that he made his debut in these pages in an article that began “Simon Rodilla is a jolly old fellow.”

It took 20 years for The Times to correct the last name of a man now regarded as one of the great folk artists of the last century. “Simon” somehow stuck, and it’s as Simon that he has gone down in history as creator of the Watts Towers — three main spires of steel and cement that reach a fraction under 100 feet high, as well as other smaller spires and sculptural elements.

Sabato/Simon’s parsimony with words should be well compensated for over the coming weekend. The city he left in 1955 is hosting a three-day academic and artistic conference about the towers that will take place at UCLA and in Watts.

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The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative will bring scholars, artists, activists and government officials together for discussions and presentations about the history, present condition, future prospects and social and artistic significance of what Rodia did in his spare time from 1921 to 1954.

“My goal was to bring everyone together” to discuss the towers, without having any specific goal, says Luisa Del Giudice, an L.A.-based independent scholar who spearheaded the conference and a companion event last year at the University of Genoa in Italy.

One of the most telling talks could be “The Watts Towers — Preservation Impossible?” The title reflects the conundrum facing those who admire the towers: The elements inevitably crack the concrete and cause decorative pieces to come unlodged, leaving the structures in need of $5 million in restoration work, according to a rough estimate by L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs.

The city, which oversees the towers under a long-term contract with their owner, the state of California, has a current-year budget of $150,000 for their upkeep.

The good news is that the way is clear for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to step in as a potentially powerful ally in conserving, promoting and raising money for the towers. Negotiations between LACMA and the Department of Cultural Affairs had become snagged over the museum’s unwillingness to get involved in tower conservation without a guarantee it wouldn’t be financially liable for damage if something should go wrong.

Now, said Saul Romo, assistant general manager of the cultural affairs department, “everything has been resolved” so that LACMA will have that guarantee. Museum conservators could be on the case within weeks, Romo said. Mark Gilberg, LACMA’s director of conservation, and Frank D. Preusser, senior scientist in the museum’s conservation department, will be conducting the “Preservation Impossible?” talk.

Gilberg and Preusser are part of a Saturday afternoon session on tower conservation that also includes art conservator Steve Colton, who will give an overview of the last 50 years of conservation efforts, and Jeffrey Herr, a curator for the Cultural Affairs department, who’ll give a status report on the towers’ current condition.

Scholars giving presentations this weekend are from the University of Genoa, Sapienza University of Rome, UCLA, Loyola Marymount University, San Jose State University, UC Berkeley, Berkeley City College, Rutgers University and Queens College, New York.

Conference-related arts events include a reception after the Friday conference session with poet Otis O’Solomon of the Watts Prophets; an “artists in conversation” panel on Saturday with John Outterbridge, Judson Powell, Charles Dickson, Augustine Aguirre and Betye Saar; an ongoing history exhibition at UCLA’s Powell Library highlighting the activities of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, which saved the towers from demolition in 1959, then owned and operated them and built the adjacent arts center before giving them as a gift to the city; and an exhibition on the towers’ history that’s on display through Nov. 3 at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles.

On Friday, the conference runs from 2 to 7 p.m. at UCLA’s Faculty Center; Saturday’s daylong session starts at 9 a.m. at 121 Dodd Hall. Sunday is a “Day in Watts,” with presentations starting at 12:30 p.m. at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, 10950 S. Central Ave. On Sunday morning there’s a guided tour of the towers, followed by lunch; a $15 charge covers the food, tour and transportation from the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood. Otherwise, the conference and all related performances and exhibitions are free. Information: https://www.wattstowerscommonground.org; info@wattstowerscommonground.org.

mike.boehm@latimes.com


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