Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
When we field student questions about artists and their works, interestingly, one of the least prevalent is: What inspired the artist? We get asked what a work is made of, its medium or material; who the artist is; what the work is; if this piece is the artists’ “most famous work”; but rarely does the question of what initially inspired an artist enter the fray of raised hands and shouting voices. In the case of our recently acquired work by artist Steve Linn, the question of inspiration is key to understanding the sandblasted glass, bronze, wood, and ceramic structure standing in the center of our atrium that is Rodia’s Tower.
What inspires an artist to become an artist? Often, it is another artist! For example, a few weeks ago we learned that Jimmy Ernst, the son of well-known artist Max Ernst, was initially inspired to paint after seeing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica on display in Paris. It is seeing what other artists are able to achieve through their art that inspires the next generation first to mimic and, eventually, to find their own style.
When Rodia’s Tower first arrived and was being installed, I distinctly remember looking at Lauren Wolfer, our Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives who was installing it along with our Technical Director Brian Williams and asking “What is it?” An assemblage of glass, wood, and ceramics, I was immediately inundated with a mixture of materials we don’t often see combined. The four main posts are wood, welded together by metal and wooden supports. The wooden posts and supports are decorated with broken ceramic shards and other glass pieces. My eye, however, was immediately drawn to the glass men. What are they doing? Holding tools in their hands, Linn has created a sculpture under construction. Both gentlemen hold buckets filled with more broken pieces of pottery. Are they creating the sculpture, then, or fixing it? In museum terms, perhaps conserving the artwork? Their hands, three-dimensional against their glass bodies, emphasize their trade, mirroring the way in which the artist works with his hands. In my initial state of confusion, however, I failed to ask the right question: “What was this inspired by?” Once I learned about Watts Towers in Los Angeles, it all came together!
Watts Towers, Tower of Simon Rodia, or Nuestro Pueblo (our town) all identify the 17 interconnected towers, structures, and mosaics that form the artwork created by Sabato Rodia in Los Angeles, California, over the span of 33 years (1921-1954). Soaring into the air to heights of 99.5 feet, the Italian immigrant used no special equipment or predetermined design to complete the work, simply beginning by digging a foundation and working from bottom to top. The architectural marvels are steel rebar mixed with concrete and wrapped with wire mesh. Rodia’s mosaics of embedded pieces of tile, glass, porcelain, and found objects showcase his talents as a construction worker and tile mason. Linn included this same mosaic detail in his homage, carving out the space in the wood to fit the shape of the pieces of broken pottery and found objects. Can you spot the green glass soda bottles in Linn’s rendition?
Conserved by the community under the umbrella of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, the structures were supposed to be demolished because they were deemed unsound. When you think of California, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it’s earthquakes! To ensure the structural integrity of the towers, an engineering test was undertaken on October 10, 1959. The crane experienced mechanical failures in its attempt to even budge the structures, and today the towers are studied for stability and endurance. In fact, the main wear and tear on the sculpture stems from weather damage to the pieces of tile and glass that decorate the arms of the sculpture. Could this be what Linn’s glass men are accomplishing? Ensuring the sculptures remain intact, and, in consequence, Rodia’s legacy? Currently, the structure is under a restoration project, begun in 2017, that closes the interior of the sculpture off to visitors. Linn’s sculpture stands in the center of our atrium, allowing you to walk around it (though not through it!) as you would at the LA site. An iconic LA destination, you can catch it in movies and television, including the 2016 La La Land!
Linn, who refers to his own work as summaries of “the history of sculpture reinvented in pieces of wood, bronze, and glass” utilizes his medium to celebrate and pay homage to other artists. Rodia’s Tower is both a representation of the towers in LA and a celebration of the artist who worked diligently to create them with the addition of Linn’s engraved glassworks.
Want to see Watts Towers but don’t have time to go to California? Check out Google Arts & Culture to explore the Towers and come to FWMoA during visiting hours to see Linn’s rendition in our atrium!