Although I’ve visited LA many times, it took me years to make it to the amazing Watts Towers. When I finally did, I was awed. The towers and the whole compound (17 interconnected structures) were built over a period of 33 years (1921-1954) by an Italian immigrant named Simon (aka Sam) Rodia…in his spare time! As related to me by a tour guide, he suffered multiple losses, first his brother and then his daughter, became a reclusive alcoholic, and was finally abandoned by his family. He reemerged after some years, bought a narrow lot in Watts, and began to build (singlehandedly) this remarkable place.
Rodia used scrap steel pipes, which he bent to shape by using the nearby railroad tracks as a vise. He covered them with wire mesh and mortar into which he embedded broken glass bottles, cracked tile, broken dishes, seashells, you name it. He worked in a nearby pottery factory and brought home damaged pieces to add to his work, and the neighborhood kids contributed by bringing him the junk they collected.
The ladder-like structures on the outside of the towers allowed him to climb with all his materials and tools, and he just kept adding rungs as he built higher and higher. The tallest towers are over 99 feet.
When I came back, I showed pictures of the towers to some of the teens I worked with in foster care. Rodia’s story of loss and recovery really spoke to them. They were greatly inspired by his work, and began to experiment with embedding found and collected objects into their clay pieces, enhancing the autobiographical aspect of their own work. One of my teen clients used heart imagery in all of her work and was particularly fond of working with clay. Seeing all the heart images incorporated into the tower structures, she felt a deep connection with Rodia, and the exposure to his work helped her to reach for more depth in her own work.
This is a good example of how incorporating exposure to the work of relevant artists can really deepen the art therapy experience. I have been able to arrange a few gallery and museum visits with clients, but photos and books can also do the trick.
You can find more info, photos, and videos here.