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tv   Witness  LINKTV  September 21, 2022 3:00am-3:31am PDT

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man: the watts towers have been a focal point of creivity for a long time. different man: i knew who i was. i knew that i was an artist. different man: they were working out of a shared need to communicate something based on what they had to work with. woman: because that's what we fought for, the ability to be free to say what we wanted to say. man: you got to a use your art as a tool to bring about social change. woman: we have fine art in watts, and it's been going on 61 years because of the watts towers art center campus.
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announcer: this program was made possible in part by: a grant from anne ray foundation, a margaret a. cargill philanthropy; the city of los angeles department of cultur affairsthe los geles county department of arts and culture; an award from the national endowment for the arts, on the web at; a grant from grow @ annenberg; and the california arts council. man: ♪ hear me say ♪ man: the watts towers has been a focal point of creativity for
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a long time. it's an icon to be acknowledged, but that creativity is ongoing. it's a community of humans that have a creative nature. different man: as kids, we played on those towers, run away by mr. rodia himself. film narrator: simon rodia, tile setter by trade, italian-born, american for half a century, builder of defiant towers. man: they called him an outsider of all things because he didn't coorm tony of the known understandings of what artists do. different man: once simon rodia finished the watts towers d he left, the art center was created, and it became like a hub really for black artists
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and the black vanguard in los angeles, a space for black artists to exhibit in a time where those opportunities weren't allowed. woman: people coalesced around the towers and then the watts arts center as a space because of rodia's idea of building something from essentially nothing. so he, you know, builds the towers literally from scraps and shards of pottery and porcelain and metal that he's found, and that's so of reminiscent of what the black community is, you know, an amalgamation of all these different people from all these different places, even inside los angeles, sort of coalescing and coming together to build something really strong and enduring. man: in watts, there's a large degree of cultural capital that goes unrecognized and underappreciated, and i think that this center provides an opportunity for those things to be showcased. in so many
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instances, centers like the watts towers arts center have grown to become these creative hubs in their community that actually have a very calming effect on their surrounding areas. woman: we have fine art in watts, and it's been going on 61 years because of the watts towers arts center campus. [power tool whirring] lewis: it's a funny story. i mean, it's a pretty funny--i think i've told you. interviewer: i think you did. wis: yeah. t city thinks watts towers is an eyesore, and they want to tear it down. the city comes and cannot because of the way it's built, right? so it's like totally the opposite of what they think. a group forms, the committee to save the watts towers. takes over a little
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house next to the towers and wants to start an art school. purifoy: they were looking for somebody with an art degree--heh--and some experience with social service, which was me. i was unemployed at the time, and i said, "well, that sounds just like me," and i split for watts. woman: so you get people coming out of the south, who bring those experiences, have been in the military, know what a segregated army feels like, try and find their ways, particularly on g.i. bills, et cetera, and they're working for an opportunity to express themselves because that's what we fought for, the ability to be free to say what we wanted to say, to have ideas, and to participate in the american dream. lewis: noah was born in snow hill, alabama, 1917, and if you were to remove art from noah's
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history, his story would be just as fantastic and amazing. born at the height of jim crow, goes to college, beces a high school teacher. then the second world war begins. he joins the armed services as a seabee, using his knowledge of construction because he taught industrial arts in high school. after the war, he goes back to school and gets a master's of social work and then makes his way out to california. pufoy: i left ohio and came to california because i'd been in the military service in california, and i dreamed of returning because it was very pleasant. lewis: he's in california as a social worker and one day gets up from his desk, walks out the door, and goes and enrollsn chouinard art school, which later becomes cal arts. purifoy: so just out of the clear blue i said, "i think i want to go to art school." i was considered the first full-time black student. i had
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a studio clean enough to eat off the table. i had a beret, and i ate cheese and drank wine, but i wasn't an artist yet until watts. that made me an artist. lewis: noah was definitely intellectual. he had the background in social work, he has the arts training. he has the military training, and i guess when they wanted him to begin the center, it is the confluence of lot of things about noah and how he wanted to interact with this community. purifoy: there was another person in the community whose name was sue welsh, and sue welsh and i began to explore the community in terms of designing an art program. we worked for weeks on end trying to recruit the youth to come to the towers to experience the programs that we were going to design. i also ran across
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judson powell. so judson powell, sue, and myself became a team to create a program in watts. i would say that it was definitely a group effort that made that little school possible. lewis: the initial idea for the center was to create an art school, and that, i guess, didn't sit well with noah because, i believe, in his mind he wanted to provide this opportunity for the people in the community to express themselves in ways they hadn't done before and through that activity to, you know, kind of get to know each other and then, you know, talk about larger issues. purifoy: art is the most uncontaminated discipline existing in the world. there was excellent opportunity to interrelate it with even poverty. [indistinct chatter]
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jefferson: ayou have the opportunity to try to live the american dream and allegedly move up, no matter what your racial background, t housing becomes available to the next group that's trying to move. the difference is for african-americans, as we desegregated, what got left behind were the poorest amongst us, those least able to move, and what that does is it starts to leave areas like watts and compton, et cetera abandoned not just because the industries have started to move ay but because there was no desire, no interest to put resources into the black community, so all black people all around the country were feeling the anxiety of "things need to be different."
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[chanting] purifoy: as a rule, black kids, particularly poor black kids, have a low self-esteem, a low self-image, and the object here was to raise their self-image. if they could come to the towers and have a good experience, a positive experience, they could take this experience with them wherever they go and improve their self-image, and this would make a great deal of difference in terms of their ability and capacity to grasp whatever the objectives were, whether it was in school or out of school. oftentimes, we'd take the children on trips to pick up objects--junk and whatnot--and bring it back to the towers, to the art center to do assemblages and collages and so forth. in
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large cities, junk is not often disposed of at garbage dumps. wherever there are poor people, there's piles of junk. people bring the junk there. in watts, it was extremely accessible. mounds of scrap metal all over the place. man: about 60% of the peoples in watts are out of work, don't have jobs, living on welfare of some sorts, and all these things are building up. peoples might have a tv. they can see the nice things in the other parts of the city, and they know what's going on in the world. they see millions and billions of dollars spent on rockets and first one thing, then another. sent overseas to other countries, and here in their own country, you know, they're hungry, they're out of a job, they're just beat. you know, they're letting off steam. man: you really have to begin
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in 1965. that was the year of the revolt. it caused a revolution in the inking, not only of blacks who lived in watts and throughout los angeles, but the entire country. as a middle- to low-income community, public services that had long been denied gave rise to the reaction to a police brutality incident, which was the order of the day in the mid sixties. it was nothing to learn that a friend, for example, one of my best friends, had been beaten near death by the policemen for jaywalking. the marquette incident on a 116th and avalon was set off in that atmosphere of rising expectations, and the feeling was among my generation is that we're not gonna take it
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anymore, and so if we can't be a part of the system, then we will attack the system. purifoy: my impression was that it was a most devastating event. had there been just looting, that would have been one thing, but there was not only looting. there were fires, smoke that permeated the whole community, and those were the sights that we saw from our back door. we saw police in the place, firemen trying to put out the fires unsuccessfully. we saw crowds and crowds of people running to and fro. the view from the towers was clear
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and unobstructed. we could see clearly what was happening on 107th street. sanders: the explosion within our inner cities, not only in los angeles but in other major cities across the country. the whole poetry of the era where everything was still rising, that this was not a war to end wars. it was a shout out, it was a beginning. it was a breaking out. jefferson: it changed so many lives because you looked up, and all of a sudden, the neighborhood was on fire. not that they hadn't seen it being destroyed anyway, but now it's really on fire, and what's left are charred remains. lewis: after the riots, noah and judson powell go out and begin collecting material. i guess there was this need to kind of reassess what had
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happened through the material culture of the riots. purifoy: we had collected 3 tons of debris after the riot, and we fashioned it in some kind of a sculpture and whatnot. there's something about objects that appeal to me is that it stimulates my imagination. i can think to do something with it, turn it into something else other than what it was originally designed for. jefferson: and probably the most significant piece that noah made in my opinion is the "watts riot" piece that he made out of the charred remains of the buildings that had burned, and you see him glue burnt wood and paint and paint on top of it. it was his way of taking those charred remains and making an abstract work out of it at a time when abstract art is also starting to take hold a little bit more in the country.
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man: in most instances, these artists were working without reference to any western canons of art. they were working out of a sheer need to communicate something based on what they had to work with. to a large degree, i think they were doing it even before some of the artists that we've come to know as doing assemblage. i think they were pioneers. purifoy: so we invited some other artists to come in and cart away some of the junk and make something for the first festival, which was at markham high school. lewis: and with another group of artists, they put together "the 66 signs of neon." purifoy: the exhibit got its title from the drippings of neon signs upon the ground mixing with the sand and dirt. so what judson and i did was
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just simply take the shapes out of the sand and brush them off and mount them on something and sold them, and they went like hotcakes. woman: for 3 years, the show traveled to 9 venues both nationally and internationally. it was extremely successful. it reached a really wide audience, and people found it really moving. the rebellion itself was a call for change, and the artists that worked with the literal materials that they collected afterwards were showing how we could create change and uplifting people. purifoy: and we sold a lot of stuff, and we'd send the money back, and we would make some more stuff. so we always had 66 pieces to display, but there were different pieces from time to time because weade sales, and that's how we existed, but from washington, d.c., the
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exhibit traveled, and about 1969, it came back in a truck just about in the same shape it was when we found it in watts, in the smoldering embers of the watts riot. in other words, that was the end of "signs of neon. " it was back in its original state, junk! woman: i think that "the 66 signs of neon" was really important because it began to show larger communities what kindf visual language was being made by people in southern california, and so after the rebellion, l.a. artists really start to have these conversations about those ideas and what their role is in those things. loyer: artists in los angeles weren't working as a formal collective, but they were affecting each other's practices still, and they came
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to a sort of shared aesthetic of assemblage. many of them were working with found materials. betye saar, with works like "the liberation of aunt jemima," one of her most famous assemblage works. saar: it was my personal way of reacting in anger tohat was happening to blacks and what had happened to blacks. outterbridge: the anger that she might show in some of the work becomes pity, you know, and hurt. jefferson: but when the riots happen, it's also at a time when america and black america are looking for references for tools, for items that might depict their experience and giving them a secondary life, a secondary meaning. moniz: artists are starting to use the material from the streets, but they're also starting to see how important
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the language that they're using in their worin terms of both assemblage but also, you know, metal work that comes out, and there's so much to be said. there are so many stories to tell, and the language that they're giving to the community and then broadcaststing out into larger communities, it was really a pivotaloment that, i think, you know, a lot of people, particularly lots of larg institutions, didn't necessilpick up on, but, you know, it didn't matter. that wasn't the goa that wa't the audience. the audience was the communities that these artists lived in and supplying them with language that would support them, sustain them, and give them opportunities to grow. greenfield: sometimes i look
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at, you know, institutions, some institutions, as positioning themselves as gatekeepers, and whenever i see a gatekeeper, i usually try to jump over the fence, and i think that's what they did a lot. i mean, there's the story of charles white, you know, driving up to lacma one day trying to get a curator to take a look at his work and actually having to pull the curator out, take him to the trunk of his car, and show him his drawings. jefferson: depictions of african-americans in positive light was important to the movement, so charles white is making work that is depicting strong, proud black people. even if he does a moment in their suffering, most of his work is showing us with our head lifted high. greenfield: i think charles white was a seminal figure in actually defining the african-american aesthetic in the sixties, seventies, and beyond. there were so many artists who, i think, he
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inspired through his depiction. i mean, you have to understand we were hit over the head with the idea black was beautiful, and we kept looking for images that said that, and that's what charles white's work did for us, and i think that a lot of other artists picked up on that and emulated that work and emulat his style in many regards. i know i did. white: when i use this image, i'm not addressing myself solely to the black people. hopefully that i'm creating the image that cries for justice for all oppressed people. man: and black! brother black! woman: black is beautiful because it feels so good! jefferson: i think every generation looks for a new way to express themselves. as the civil rights movement takes hold in the sixts and seventies and the black power movement, when we start to refer to ourselves as black,
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you can ke pushing the envelope, and you can keep talking about that march to emancipation and et cetera. so it's an evolution as to how far you can go and what it is that you have to say. sanders: the art in that particular era grew out of that. if you can imagine that we were hungry for expressions of those long-held, deep-seated feelings of, on the one hand, frustration, on the other hand, hope, and the art reflects that, a kind of empowerment. the art became confrontational. it was accusaty. it was saying, "here i . i'm blk, and if you don't like it, too bad, but this is the way i feel." davis: the period really
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represents kind of renaissance. might not even be a renaissance, you know. a renaissance is a rebirth. this could have been like a first birth, you know, a real first opportunity for minority artists to showcase their work. loyer: there just sort of a somewhat collective ethos in the air. people are really creating the spaces that they need to be showing their work. davis: the watts towers, the creative arts academy, the watts writers workshop, pasla--performinarts society of los angeles. so because there was a cultural consciousness, we were involved in total community, and we talked about opportunities, and we thought, "we should open a gallery." man: alonzo davis and his brother dale davis started their gallery, and their gallery became the cornerstone
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of a place to show. it was where the "l.a. times" would come down and actually give a critique of the show. das: that was the beginning of an opportunity that changed our lives and a lot of other people's lives. moniz: i think that the post watts rebellion in los angeles gave a lot of artists material to use in their art making, but it also started to define for artists who weren't part of that group the power of what their art making was, and there were, you know, at brockman gallery in 1967 when ibegan, these saturday forums where theyould come d debate what their responsibilities were as artists and as makers and as community members. they used to get into huge fights with each other about what their roles were, what their responsibilities were, what black art was, if there was even
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such a thing. the power lies with these makers in particular and the ways that they could translate what already was and take, again like the towers, take parts of lots of things and make them into something completely new and their own. booker: i'm claude booker. i'm president of the black arts council and director of this installation. as black people start to decide their--what their fate and destiny will be, as we are not allowed in museums, as we start to develop our own critics and aesthetics, i think that we're going to find that art won't be so precious with black people as it is in the mainstream. i believe that we'll return to functional art. i just passed by a truck on the way to will rogers down on
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century. they were selling watermelons and paintings. greenfield: simon rodia's house burned down in a fire. nobody knows quite how it started. the only thing left was the foundation. curtis tann started conducting art classes on the foundation of the house. they put a tarp over the remains to more or less shield everything, and then artists would kind of volunteer. they'd kind of drop in and help teach classes there. there was nothing very formal about it at all. man: curtis tann, he was very sensitive to the creative spirits of other artists. he was a good mentor in relationship to how artists should be treated and how artists should conduct
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themselves in that kind of position. purifoy: he came from karamu house. i think calling ourselves community artists harks back to the beginning of art in cleveland at the karamu house, where they were practicing community art for years. community art has a certain belief system. it doesn't believe in art for art's sake. so you can imagine the problem that one would have in an elite community like los angeles with this kind of belief system, and yet we were consistent with our idea. greenfield: noah and curtis thought it would ba good idea to have a permanent structure there, and they had a lot of people working with the original simon rodia's committee, and the center was always supposed to be a temporary structure. it's been temporary now for how many years? it's not even on a
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foundation. it's on this concrete slab, ok? there's a link between noah purifoy, judson powell, curtis tann, and john outterbridge. jefferson: john outterbridge came out here and became fascinated not only with los angeles and all that was possible with it, but he found friends, and he made allies, and together, he cared about offering what other people weren't giving to us, so, you know, let's have a communicative arts academy, and if you have the watts tower art center, if you have outterbridge starting the communicative arts academy where they had dance and music, this is a neighborhood activity. nobodyas trying to come in and bring this stuff for them. it was from the ground up, and they made it happen.
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outterbridge: in los angeles, i was introduced to this city, about art the tool for change. we started to have conversations about the street environment being the studio environment, and i really believed that--or thstudio being anywhere that you chose for it to be. noah and judson powell talked to me a lot about that, and it formed an attitude that i just embraced within myself. purifoy: at the time, i recall, we didn't verbalize much about art. we insisted that art speaks for itself, but my attitude toward that concept was that it was elite and that poor people could not afford to feel that something was in and of itself because of basic needs and dedependency. it's an elitist concept to feel that


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