Sam Rodia, Artist, Watts Towers
BUILDER OF THE WATTS TOWERS
Simon “Sam” Rodia
Watts, California – 1954
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.
From May 1985- THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES CULTURAL AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT:
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.”