The Watts Towers, located in California, were designed and constructed by Simon Rodia. The towers consist of seventeen sculptures, including three towers, with the tallest standing at nearly 100 feet. Other noteworthy sculptures include a gazebo and a ship. The most impressive thing about the towers is that Rodia built them entirely by himself from 1921 to 1954.
The towers were constructed using steel rebar armatures, mortar, and wire mesh. No scaffolding or machinery was used to build the towers, although Rodia occasionally used a window washer’s belt and buckle. He decorated the structures in mosaics of broken pottery, glass, shells, and other discarded objects.
Rodia was born as Sabato Rodia in 1879 in Ribottoli, Italy. It is possible that he visited the nearby village of Nola to attend the annual Gigli Festival where he would have encountered the Giglio structures (pictured below). These structures may have served as direct inspiration for his creation later on.
Rodia came to America in the mid-1890s. In 1921, after a couple of unsuccessful relationships and various jobs, Rodia decided to start his artistic journey at 1761-1765 107th Street in the Watts community of Los Angeles. He worked as a construction worker during the day and dedicated all of his spare time to making his art. He decided to create “something big,” and he did exactly that.
In 1955, at the age of 75, Rodia decided to leave his grand project behind to go live in Martinez, California with family. He handed the keys over to a neighbor. In 1959, the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts was formed to help preserve the site. After critics of the towers had questioned the safety of the structures, the site went through extensive safety testing and passed. This is a great accomplishment considering that Rodia was mainly self-taught. In 1990, the towers were listed as a National Historic Landmark, and presently the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department manages the park. Visitors can view Rodia’s amazing towers by attending a guided tour. Until then, here is a YouTube video (filmed by PC3DM) of a quadcopter flying over the Watts Towers.
Simon Sparrow (1925-2000) was a self-taught artist who was born in West Africa and raised in North Carolina. Sparrow moved to Madison, Wisconsin in the 1970s where he was known as a street preacher. Sparrow’s spiritual beliefs crossed over into his artwork. He believed he was guided by “spirit” to create.
Sparrow used unusual materials to create his mosaic-like art, including: jewelry, plastic figurines (like Star Wars figures), beads, pine cones, glitter, and other found object materials. He even covered his car in glitter and found objects.
Sparrow passed away in 2000. In 2012, he was the recipient of a Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award. His work has been included in several exhibitions and was featured on a 2009 episode of Antiques Roadshow.
We recently worked on a project for kids based on the art of Simon Sparrow. As you can imagine, the kids were excited about using the recycled materials to create their work. We did this project with 6 to 8 year old children, but it can be taught to a range of ages, and the materials can be varied based on skill level. For example, older kids can use hot glue guns. With the younger kids, we used a non-toxic glue, Aleene’s Clear School Tacky Glue. Also, in order to prevent a disastrous glitter mess but still pay tribute to Sparrow’s love of glitter, we used washable glitter pens.
Stephen Wright is an artist and designer from East Dulwich, an area of south London, England. About 31 years ago, he began transforming his house and garden into the House of Dreams Museum. He was inspired to create the museum after viewing Jarvis Cocker’s documentaries on outsider art, called Journeys into the Outside with Jarvis Cocker(which I highly recommend watching). His museum is full of elaborate mosaics and found object sculptures. It also serves as a shrine for his memories and a tribute to his deceased partner and parents. It was bequeathed to the National Trust and is open to the public. The visiting hours are listed on his website.
Grandview is a sculpture garden located in Hollandale, Wisconsin.In the 1930s, self-taught artist and dairy farmer, Nick Engelbert, began working on this sculpture garden. His wife, Katherine, added her own personal touch by creating lovely garden beds around each of the sculptures. Engelbert started his creations as wooden and wire mesh armatures, which he then embellished with mosaics of glass, shells, and other found materials. Engelbert’s subject matter ranged from fairy tales to patriotic motifs.
After his wife passed away in 1960, Engelbert sold Grandview and moved to Baltimore to live with his daughter. He left behind a beautiful landscape of forty sculptures. Left on its own, the property began to slowly decay and in some cases, vandalism came into play. Fortunately, the Kohler Foundation bought the property in 1991 and began restoring it. There is now an educational program for Grandview as well.
Here is a link to a video about Grandview created by The Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium.
The Uncommon Canvas raises visibilty and promotes artists who are using non-traditional materials, found objects, and other unusual materials to make their art, ranging from small scale artworks to large sculpture parks. We also feature the work of self-taught artists and artists working outside of the mainstream paradigm.