Tuesday, August 11, 2015


This year - and more specifically, this date - marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. In remembrance of this occasion, the Aero Theatre hosted an anniversary screening of Ed Landler's documentary I Build the Tower. A dynamic panel discussion, orchestrated by Rosie Lee Hooks of the Watts Towers Art Center, followed the film and included Landler; Watts-based filmmaker Ben Caldwell; Watts-based artists Charles Dickson and Judson Powell; historians Luisa Del Giudice and Gerald Horne; and poet Ojenke.

L-R: Rosie Lee Hooks, Gerald Horne (seated), Ed Landler, Luisa Del Giudice, Ben Caldwell, Ojenke, Charles Dickson

I Build the Tower gives insight into the life of Sabato Rodia, the creator of the world-renowned Watts Towers. It is a demonstration of the power of one person's contributions to society. The film shows how Rodia's vision, strong will, and amazing work ethic has inspired and motivated people globally. In addition, it chronicles his thoughts and steps in building the Watts Towers. It also demonstrates a life of change and personal struggles, a love for community, the desire to make something out of this world, and touches on social injustice.

At the Q&A, Hooks opened by acknowledging the parents and educators that were in attendance.

Ed Landler then gave his recollection of the first time he learned of the Watts riots. While in college, he went to the beach with a friend and witnessed some black people being arrested by the police.

Later in life, Lander felt that he wanted to be a part of telling real stories. After a period of time living abroad studying in Europe, Landler returned to the United States in the 1960's and began teaching. Said Landler, “I felt like there was something was wrong while working with south central Los Angeles students.” This is what motivated him to become involved with the Watts Towers Art Center. He along with a partner decided to make a film that crystallized what people have to live through in terms of being underprivileged and underserved.

In facilitating the panel, Hooks repeatedly encouraged the audience not to live in fear of the Watts community. She instead encouraged them to visit the Watts Towers Art Center.  Hooks mentioned that international visitors sometimes visit the Watts Towers more than the local community because of the way the media portrays people getting shot while in Watts. She affirmed that the people of Watts are rich in culture despite the negative thoughts of the city. Hooks went further and shared that the Watts community is challenged economically but not culturally. She also voiced that the people of Watts want what everyone else wants, a better way of life, and opportunities for their children to be the best that they can be.

Next Luisa Del Giudice gave her account of how she became involved with the Watts Towers Art Center. As a director of the Italian World History Institute who was planning a festival, she vaguely remembered Rodia being Italian and that's how she decided to come on board. She said that a picture of Rodia reminded her of a family member and of the working class. She stated ,“Rarely do we celebrate immigrant workers. When I listened to his story and his political ideas, I thought this was a story we need to know more about and we need to spread this story. He had a lot to tell us as an almost invisible member of society. He was a foreigner who lived between two world wars and had experienced that hostility. He was a radical who was concerned with how working people make ends meet. He worried about how the poor man could manage. He had ideas that were very inclusive despite what he had suffered through. The fact that his monument translates into 'our town our people' suggests that he desired to embrace his community a feeling that he probably desired for himself.” Two of Del Guidice's favorite scenes in the film where when Rodia was saying “Come in” and was opening up and saying “Come in and enjoy. “ She ended with saying “I hope that people can view the Towers as a festival, a celebration of festivity of welcome, and open arms."

Hooks then informed audience that Rodia made the Towers of recycled materials. He used something that was cast away and reused it to make it something beautiful. She then introduced Gerald Horne. Horne stated that “It's remarkable that events that sparked the Watts Riots half a century ago are similar to the events of today, such as confrontations with authorities.” He stated “Many of these causes from back then have still maintained and some may argue that things may have gotten worse.”

Hooks then interjected and spoke on the Confederate flag and how growing up in Alabama it invoked in her the fear of the KKK. She then moved on to mentioning a current exhibition at the Watts Towers Art Center titled 50 Years and I still Can't Breathe. Hooks next introduced Charles Dickson. Dickson affirmed that “What Rodia felt about the spirit of community, I feel too.” He also asserted that “I grew up in the Watts community and that is what the Watts Towers Art Center has become is a part of a spiritual flow. That we are human beings but we are spiritually connected together.” He then explained that “I am a self-taught artist who has a divine gift that was given to me to share." The community around the art center still shares, as did Rodia. Hooks then told the audience that “The Watts Towers Art Center is a place that, just like Rodia, fights for what it believes in.”

Up next was Ben Caldwell. He explained how he came from areas of New Mexico and Arizona, deserts not only in climate but also of art, to  Los Angeles, and was moved by seeing so many artists in one place. He also enjoyed being introduced to a black community that took him in, and also acknowledged that filmmaker Larry Clark had introduced him to artists in California. “That was my path and that is the wonderfulness of it that made me stay there,” he said. He also spoke on how he wanted to go to Los Angeles to see the towers, but just thought it stood for a struggle. “I had no idea of how much more to it there was.” Caldwell told his story of seeing the violence of the Los Angeles police on people of color - he was taken back at how police would throw down people on hot pavement.

Hooks then reflected on how the Watts Towers Arts Center has elders that still teach and nourish the community. She then noted that “It's part our heritage to take care of our elders.” She then welcomed Ojenke as one of their master poets. Ojenke said “I believe that Rodia's message was for us to shoot for the stars."  A touching poem called "Shoot for the Stars, Sabato" then was recited by Ojenke, honoring Sabato Rodia's works. A verse that stood out was that “Sabato worked like a hero.” After applause Hooks said “That is what Watts Towers Art Center is: artists, some of the world's best students, and people who preserve Watts. When you hear Watts don't think of us in a negative way; think of us in a positive way.” 

Someone in the audience asked what had become of the planters in Martinez. Landler answered that they are sitting in a garage in West Los Angeles and that they do need some conservation work on them. "When my partner in this project, Brad Beyer, died, the family asked if we could do something with them and if they were valuable," Landler said. “Yes, They are valuable. However, I learned so much about the art world - the reality of inequality comes there too. We have a letter for the Smithonian they have started a folk art department. Friends of the Watts family is seeking help to compensate the family who for eight years had stewardship of these pieces and to pay for the coservatation of these pieces as well. To have one of the Towers at the Smithonian would be America saying this is one of the great artists of America. We are still working on it.”

Another guest asked, “What is the concept in regards to the planters being placed in Smithonian?" Landler said “One would be displayed at the Smithsonian in D.C., and one would stay at the Watts Towers Art Center. The planters are two of the largest pieces Rodia made outside of the Watts Towers. Hooks then mentioned that they have a cross donated to the arts center that was made by Rodia. She went onto say the center stores historic pieces that come from the community.

Landler ended the discussion panel by providing additional information on future discussions that will continue to take place this month on the Watts Riots. Landler emphasized that “We can't separate the necessity of community and how important the arts are.“ He declared “Community existed long before money.”