Sam Rodia, Artist, Watts Towers


Simon “Sam” Rodia
Watts, California – 1954

Watts, California

Rodia darted over and stood threateningly in front of me, shaking his finger, speaking excitedly in broken English. “You, you think you poody. You no poody. You think you poody, but you’re not. Sure, you poody on the outside. Inside you stink like hell!”

We wanted Sam to cooperate while we shot a story on his towers. Sam wasn’t buying it. We tried to cajole Sam into climbing up just a few feet and act like he was working on the tower. Sam steadfastly refused, ranting “No. No. No.” Then he’d storm off to a shed which served as his living quarters.

After a while he would emerge and ignore us. He was beset by his own tribe of devils — he was nuts. We’d try again and Sam would become enraged and storm back into the shed only to appear a short time later. He looked at me with some queer interest never noticing my Rollei which I held low to grab candid shots.

Squirrelly as hell, Sam lit up with a fresh idea. He started at me again, “You no poody, I show you something poody.” With this he whirled around and raced back into that damned shed. He was in there so long this time I thought he’d probably forgotten us. But suddenly Sam burst through the door, holding a cheap black picture frame to his chest. He marched over, again telling me I wasn’t pretty. Then he turned the picture around and held it to my face, rapping on it with a callused finger, “Now, that’s poody!” It was an illustration from National Geographic magazine, depicting George Washington crossing the Delaware, his hand tucked inside his coat like Napoleon.

We didn’t get what we wanted that day, but I got Sam, and pictures of the towers. Soon after, Sam packed up and moved north, abandoning his giant mud pies. Later he was declared a genius by those who know. People who never met him. People in the art world.

One man, working alone, created the astonishing structures called the Towers of Simon Rodia. During 33 intense years working with no drawing board designs, no machine equipment, scaffolding, bolts, rivets or welds, he created structures literally “built in the air,” using only a tile-setter’s simple tools and a window-washer’s belt and bucket. The artist collected more than 70,000 seashells, salvaged endless tiles and bottles and dismantled pipe structures. he bent reinforcing rods under the nearby railroad tracks. As he worked, his ideas changed and brought constant elaboration and revision. “How could I have help?” asked Rodia. “I couldn’t tell anyone what to do, most of the time I didn’t know what to do myself.” In 1954, when he was 75, he deeded his lot and his lifework to a neighbor and disappeared. Discovered in Martinez, California in 1959, Rodia was reluctant to talk about the Towers. He said, “If your mother dies and you have loved her very much, maybe you don’t speak of her.”


16 thoughts on “Sam Rodia, Artist, Watts Towers

      • Hello Christina,
        I was a friend and fan of your fathers and have these photos now hanging in my living room.
        lucky me huh, thank you .
        Shoot me an email if you want to catch up.
        x LULU

        • OMG! I remember you, you are adorable and my father loved you! How in the world did you find this? Do you still have your restaurant? Yes, lucky you. I hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I look at these photos, so glad they went to a good home where they would be appreciated which was my intent. Amazing, small world. *hugs*

    • YES indeed! They are still standing. I googled “watts towers, still standing?” Seems to have a bit of a cult thing going actually, I think they will be standing a long time and the riots apparently did not damage them in the 60’s. Lots of interesting things pop up with that search on the towers.

  1. Reblogged this on the eff stop and commented:
    This blog is just amazing, it’s built from the memoir of photojournalist Gene Barnes who worked for NBC in the 50s and 60s. This post shows an amazing set of towers but also gives a sense of Gene’s working method.

    • I am so glad you are enjoying it Alessandro, it is pretty special collection to me and I am overjoyed at being able to finally share it with others who appreciate and are so talented in photography themselves.

    • Perhaps just another anti social artist. I think the towers are brilliant, so straight, so tall and one guy over 43 years focused on it and did it all alone. These days they would tear it down because he didn’t get a permit. I am glad you enjoyed it Mike. I actually am using the towers for my Christmas card this year. I decorated them in Photoshop with ornaments because I think they look like trees. šŸ˜‰

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