Preservation News 14 Items

Save Nashville artist William Edmondson's homesite!

Posted in Preservation News, Take Action, Threatened Environments

 

CLICK HERE to go straight to the petition and sign! 

 

Nashville’s Mayor plans to immediately sell a neighborhood park, which includes the former homesite of William Edmondson, Nashville’s most celebrated African American artist, to private developers to help balance the city budget. If this is approved by Metro Council on June 19, 2018, it will take precious parkland away from citizens, wipe away a historic site, accelerate the destruction of a historic middle- and working-class African American neighborhood, and eliminate a community garden that has served neighborhood families for generations. It will destroy a priceless historical and cultural site that should be preserved and enhanced instead. All with ZERO input from the neighborhood, the historical preservation community, or local or national arts and creative community. It also ignores and disrespects any and all previous land use policy conversations with the neighborhood.

 

Metro Nashville Council votes on its budget, which will authorize selling the land, on June 19. If it passes, we may lose this precious site forever. If we can stop it, we can at least begin a rational discussion as to how to best preserve and develop the property responsibly, as a proper monument to a great artist and as a living legacy that serves all citizens.

 

The petition is for the following:

1. Immediate halt of the sale of this public land to for private gain, and a commitment by the Mayor engage Nashville citizens in the process of preserving and enhancing it.

2. Transfer to the Parks Department and implement a meaningful master planning process, with civic involvement of all stakeholders of the site; for instance including themed playgrounds, integration with the adjacent branch library, a sculpture garden with landscaping, picnic shelters, and educational interpretive displays to share the stories of William Edmondson and other neighborhood heroes, such as pioneering musician Deford Bailey and early 20th century civil rights activist Callie House.

3. The specific section of the property where William Edmondson’s house and studio stood is forever preserved and developed as a site honoring his art and life.

4. The land next to the homesite, which is now parkland and community garden, should be protected as such, and improved via the master planning process.

5. If any other portion of the site is eventually sold to private interests, it must be done within a strict and binding planning framework, including firm safeguards of appropriate zoning and land use policies, that will enhance the neighborhood, not further threaten it.

 

Self-taught limestone sculptor William Edmondson was the first African American artist to receive a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. He is celebrated worldwide for his simple, but subtle, limestone garden sculptures, which are prized by collectors and sell for as much as $250,000. His work, and his story of vision, resourcefulness and faith, continue to inspire new generations of artists locally and around the world. Edmondson’s former homesite, where he lived, created his masterpieces, and died, is currently part of a park that includes a playground, basketball courts, picnic area, and a 25 year old community garden that serves children and families with fresh air, fresh fruits and vegetables, and community interaction.

 

Nashville’s Mayor has suddenly announced plans to rezone and sell this property to private developers “to the highest bidder” to help plug a gap in the city’s 2018-2019 budget. This likely means luxury high-rise condos or similar inappropriate development that will wipe away this treasured land, unless it is stopped.

 

There has been very little outreach by the city to the to the neighborhood to inform them, much less to invite participation in the future if the park. Nashville is booming. Development is proceeding at a feverish pace. Affordable housing is getting scarce. This area is already under tremendous gentrification pressure and the very survival of this historic neighborhood is at stake. The effect of eliminating the park in favor of incompatible development would be catastrophic. Loss of the park would be be a huge blow to the neighborhood’s vibrancy. Loss of the Edmondson homesite would be an irreversible loss of Nashville’s social, cultural, and artistic history. 

 

William Edmondson’s carved tombstones and garden sculptures spoke to the themes of faith, community, connection to the land, and remembrance. His own grave is lost, leaving his homesite —where he lived, worked, and died— as the only physical place where he can properly be honored.

 

SIGN THE PETITION HERE!

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Upcoming Hearing on Historically Designating the Painted Bride Arts Center

Posted in Gardens, Preservation News, Take Action

 

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens seeks to protect important mosaic mural.

 

OLD CITY, PHILADELPHIA:  When it was announced in December that the Painted Bride Art Center was going up for sale, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) immediately recognized the risk that this posed to the roughly 7,000 square foot mosaic mural on the building’s façade, and is now working to protect this mural through historical designation. A hearing to discuss this historical designation takes place at 9:30 AM on Wednesday, June 20, at 1515 Arch Street.

 

paintedbridewalleditThe Painted Bride Arts Center

 

PMG’s mission is to preserve, interpret, and provide access to Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic environment and his public murals. Zagar’s mural at the Painted Bride, located at 230-36 Vine Street, is one of his most iconic works. In the early 1990s Zagar was invited to work on the façade of the Painted Bride building, formerly the Eastern Elevator Co. It provided one of the largest canvases to date for Zagar’s work and was the first time he covered the entire length and height of a building with mosaic mural.

 

In his 1993 article in the Philadelphia Daily News, Ron Avery wrote: “From sidewalk to roof every inch is colorfully painted and decorated in wild, imaginative detail. There are swirls, circles, seashells, Chinese writing and bits and pieces of ceramic birds, butterflies, flowers, human figures, and ceramic feet. ‘Isaiah took a simple industrial building with no character and made it fascinating,’ says Gerry Givnish, executive director of the Painted Bride. ‘Zagar’s weird art has given the Painted Bride near landmark status.’”

 

zagarIsaiah Zager with one of his colorful mosaics

 

PMG’s Executive Director Emily Smith remarks, “As community members, I think it’s important to fight for the character of our city. The history and culture of our streets is what makes Philadelphia such a special place to live. What does it mean if we don’t try to keep our art and the history behind it from being destroyed?”

If the application for historical designation is accepted it would protect the outside of the Painted Bride building from being altered or demolished. PMG has also made the commitment to caretake the mosaic mural in perpetuity.

PMG encourages the public to read the application, and if they support it, voice their opinion and attend the hearing on June 20.

CONTACT:

Emily Smith | 215-733-0390 ext. 113 | esmith@phillymagicgardens.org

_________________________________________________

ABOUT PHILADELPHIA’S MAGIC GARDENS 

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) is a nonprofit visionary art environment and community arts center located in Isaiah Zagar’s largest public artwork.

Spanning half a block on Philadelphia’s famous South Street, the museum includes an immersive outdoor art installation and indoor galleries. Zagar created the space using nontraditional materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors. The site is enveloped in visual anecdotes and personal narratives that refer to Zagar’s life, family, and community, as well as references from the wider world such as influential art history figures and other visionary artists and environments.

PMG is a unique Philadelphia destination that inspires creativity and community engagement by providing educational opportunities and diverse public programming to thousands of visitors each year. For more information, visit www.phillymagicgardens.org.

 

See more of Isaiah Zager’s Magic Gardens on SPACES!

Laura Pope Forester home sees bright future ahead!

Posted in Gardens, Preservation News

 

fullsizeoutput128May 1990

The current owners of the Laura Pope Forester home, also known as Mrs. Pope’s Museum and Garden or Pope Store Museum, have been hard at work with the goal of refurbishing the site’s gardens, sculptures, murals, and other works of art. Laura Pope (1900-1953) had built an extraordinary garden around her antebellum rural residence in Ochlocknee, GA, which included over 200 figurative sculptures. Most were three-dimensional, but others were bas-reliefs or busts set into or topping the walls and the elaborate arched gateway on the periphery of her property. She built her works up on a metal infrastructure composed of found objects such as scrap iron and tin cans, later covering them with concrete. 

 

Her subjects, mostly “outstanding individuals of fact and fancy” and mostly female, focused on a diverse and wide-ranging group of significant or iconic women, but there were also figures from tales and legend. Other works included a series of seven faces representing the world’s major religions; thought to have been taken from plaster casts, it has been suggested that they were molded from her friends.

 

fullsizeoutput126May 1990

After Laura Pope’s death, the family maintained the property without making significant changes, and for some time it remained a local tourist attraction and roadside curiosity that was supported, in part, by a civic club and Pelham’s Chamber of Commerce. However, in 1974, her only surviving son sold the site to a mill owner from the nearby town of Meigs. He thought that the sculptures had “passed their days of being useful,” so he dismantled and destroyed most of the freestanding works, leaving only some dozen that had been built into the walls. Most of the rest were destroyed in 1981, yet by 1990 several still remained within the garden walls.

 

By the time the current owners purchased the property and moved on-site in July 2017, the entire property had been severely neglected. Since then, considerable effort and progress has been made to rebrand both the property and Laura Pope Forester’s work, as well as to restore the structure of the building. A new nonprofit corporation – Pope’s Museum Preservation, Inc.- has been set up, and they are going through the process of preparing an application to add the home and grounds to the National and Georgia Registers of Historic Places under the categories of art, recreation and leisure, and women’s history. 

 

fullsizeoutput124Image from Popes Museum Preservation

You can follow along with the progress of the restoration through their newly launched website, which includes a blog with behind-the-scenes images of daily discoveries made while working on the site. You can learn more about Laura Pope Forester at SPACES here and see the Pope Store Museum website here.

Gabriel Albert Sculpture Garden Undergoes Restoration

Posted in Gardens, Preservation News, Self-Taught Arts in the News

 

 

Gabriel Albert’s garden in Nantillé  (Charente-Maritime), after 25 years of being largely unoccupied, has experienced a swell of visitors since the recent launch of a regional restoration project. It had been unoccupied, that is, with the exception of over 400 resident statues!  

 

free-entry-manThis statue, recently cleaned, greets visitors at the entrance of the garden.

As a youngster, Gabriel Albert dreamt of becoming a sculptor, but became a carpenter to earn a regular livelihood. It was not until he retired in 1969 at age 65 that he was finally able to give way to his passion.

Albert began making figurative sculptures and busts, applying cement to iron frame infrastructures. Most of the 420 sculptures he eventually created, which he placed in the garden surrounding his hand-built house, represented anonymous people going about everyday tasks. However, some depicted political personalities, celebrities, and characters from fairy tales, which he based on photographs he saw in magazines.

 

1Concrete is porous, which makes it an ideal place for moss and lichen to grow. Conservators often use biocide to combat this common ailment of art environments.

 

nantille

 

Around 1989 Albert became ill and decided to reserve his energy to maintain the site rather than to create new works. Before his death, he sold all of his work for a symbolic amount to the community of Nantillé. In spring 2011, an association of friends actively promoted protected status for the garden, so that it could be opened for visits by the general public. Now, in 2017, preservationists, using brushes and other small tools, are carefully scraping lichen and moss from the sculptures in the first phase of conservation. Sculptures with more extensive damage have been fitted with frames to protect their fragile limbs until the conservationists can explore options and decide on long term solutions to strengthen the concrete forms. As of this writing, fifty-nine figures have been taken to an offsite workshop for conservation. 

 

biocide-half-n-halfHalf of the statue has undergone biocide treatment, which shows the effectiveness of removing microorganisms that have nestled in the concrete.

 

The timeline for this project is November 2017 to June 2018. The most urgent task was to pack, transport and shelter those fifty-nine statues at risk, but emergency measures will also include filling cracks in the statues and the restoration of Gabriel Albert’s studio. The first stage of restoration, estimated to cost 252,602€, is 100% financed by the Region of New Aquitaine under the scientific and technical control of the Regional Conservation of Historical Monuments (Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs [DRAC] New Aquitaine - Ministry of Culture). They have done a truly fantastic job of documenting the history of the site and will surely continue the good work through conservation. 

 

4Splints, polyurethane foam, and plastic film help keep damaged limbs in check.

 

supported bustsAfter supporting the ground beneath and creating a protective structure, these busts that were formerly leaning are safe.

 

Learn more about the Gabriel Albert Sculpture Garden on SPACES here

 

All images: © Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine, General Inventory of Cultural Heritage. Christian Rome, 2017. 

Mourning Francisco González Gragera, Creator of Spain’s Capricho de Cotrina

Posted in Preservation News
dscf0555All photos by Jo Farb Hernández, December 31, 2015.

SPACES is sad to share the news of the death of Francisco González Gragera, creator of one of Spain’s most important art environments, the Capricho de Cotrina, located in the western autonomous community of Extremadura (Badajoz). Gragera passed away on September 19, 2016; he was 90 years old. We send our warmest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time

 

Although González began his elaborate project to build a country home for himself and his family in 1988, he was forced to stop several times – sometimes for years at a time – as a result of municipal mandates to halt construction, as his whimsical art environment did not conform to local urban codes or permit requirements, let alone architectural expectations. While he was not forced to demolish his work, neither was he given permission to continue to explore his aesthetic interests. Finally, in 2011, a new administration was elected and he was given the go-ahead to begin work anew, which he did with gusto, finessing existing components and adding new ones in the house as well as surrounding gardens, working without written plans and no formal training in architecture, engineering, or art.

 

In contrast to the products of his decades-long vocation–flat marble and granite floors, façades, and even sober geometrically rectilinear headstones–his architectural/sculptural Capricho flamboyantly celebrates the curve. Sinuous lines and organic contours characterize González’s sculpture and architecture, and even the footprints of the house and garden structures rarely, if ever, manifest a straight line. The curvilinear essence of the construction is not related to the topography, as the site is generally flat; rather, it reveals the emphasis the artist placed on unapologetically celebrating the fluidity of form.

 

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González’s Capricho, surely, was linked to aesthetic fantasy and his personal aspirations. It also links to the natural and man-made worlds: local topography and vegetation are well-represented, but so too are the fruits of the local laborers–the olives, the grapes, the sunflowers, the wheat, and even the acorns that are eaten with such gusto by the hogs that will be processed into the renowned jamón serrano. Yet beyond this his architectural whimsy was also tinged with painful memories, represented by the small loaf of bread that symbolizes those postwar years of starvation across Spain and the deprivations of the wars. His sensitivity to those events–viscerally understood at both an individual and a cultural level–coupled with his personal campaign to prove to others that he was worthy, that he was special, also underlay his impetus for construction. He was working for himself and his family, but also to share his efforts, his aesthetics, and what he believed to be important with others, passersby and locals alike.

 

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“Imagination can’t be purchased,” González affirmed. And giving free rein to those images of his imagination, he worked intuitively and improvisationally until the end, to, as he declared, make “the magic of dreams become reality.”

Having worked with and documented González’s Capricho de Cotrina from 2002 to 2016, I devoted a chapter with full description and analysis of his work in my 2013 book Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments.

— Jo Farb Hernández 

 

Watts and Conservation Communities Mourn Frank Preusser

Posted in Preservation News

Frank D. Preusser (1944 – 2017)

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Dr. Frank D. Preusser, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist, in the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  Dr. Preusser devoted his life to the preservation of cultural materials and is widely recognized as one of the preeminent figures in the field of conservation science.  He joined LACMA in 2005 at a time when the Center was undergoing significant changes and his efforts were instrumental in revitalizing the Center’s scientific program. In addition to providing scientific support to the museum’s conservators and curatorial staff, Frank was the lead scientist and project manager for LACMA’s efforts to conserve Watts Towers – a complex set of interconnected sculptural structures located within the Simon Rodia State Historic Park in Watts, California.

Dr. Preusser received his BS (1967) and MS (1969) in chemistry from the Technical University Munich, Germany and in 1973 his PhD (summa cum laude) in physical chemistry and chemical technology. Soon thereafter he accepted a position at the Doerner Institute, the research center of the Bavarian State Art Collections where he served as Head of the Research Laboratory for over ten years working closely with one of the world’s leading paintings conservators, the late Hubert von Sonnenburg. As the only museum scientist on staff he was responsible for the technical examination of the collections as well as assisting the State’s Historic Monument Protection Agency. He also played an active role in the design of the Neue Pinakothek Munich to ensure the proper display and storage of the works of art.

 In 1983 Dr. Preusser was appointed Head of the Laboratory at the J. Paul Getty Museum and later served in multiple positions at the Getty Conservation Institute including Program Director (Scientific Research), Acting Co-Director, Head of Publications, and Associate Director (Programs). As Program Director for Scientific Research Dr. Preusser developed a wide range of new initiatives that set the stage for some of the most important advances in the field of conservation science. During his tenure at GCI, rather than poaching research staff from other institutions, Dr. Preusser purposefully recruited young up-and-coming professionals with various scientific backgrounds and set them off on the challenge of applying their expertise to cultural heritage preservation.  Many of them continue his drive to advance scientific progress in the field of conservation. During his tenure at GCI he also served on numerous advisory committees for the preservation of cultural materials – most notably UNESCO’s Advisory Committee to the Egyptian Antiquities Organization on the Preservation of the Giza Plateau; UNESCO’s International Consultative Committee for the Preservation of Moenjodaro in Pakistan; UNESCO’s International Committee on Training Needs in Cambodia; UNESCO’s Advisory Committee on the Preservation of the Monuments of Angkor, Cambodia; and the US National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program.

 After leaving the Getty Conservation Institute in 1993, he founded Frank Preusser & Associates where he continued to work on cultural heritage preservation projects for museums, libraries and archives as well as scientific investigations of individual artworks.  During this time he was also a guest-professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku) where he taught several graduate courses in conservation science including an Introduction to Instrumental analysis, archaeometry, and accelerated aging.

While Dr. Preusser’s knowledge of the field of art conservation was without parallel, for those of us who had the honor of working with him he will always be remembered for the devotion and support he gave his staff and colleagues.  He loved teaching and guiding his staff and interns to reach their goals and become successful professionals. Many of us today owe our professional careers to his mentorship for which we are truly grateful.  

Dr. Preusser is survived by his wife Margarete, his two sons Wolfgang and Bernhard, his daughters-in-law Melinda and Susan, and his grandchildren Adrianna and Devin.

 

~Mark Gilberg and Charlotte Eng



Conservator-in-Residence Position, Hartman Rock Garden - Ohio

Posted in Preservation News
indexphoto2Image via Hartman Rock Garden.
The Hartman Rock Garden is seeking applications from individuals who wish to gain professional experience in the fields of art history, conservation, history, and museum studies for its eleven-month Conservator-in-Residence position. The position begins May 1, 2017 and concludes March 31, 2018 (dates can be flexible). The selected individual or individuals will reside in the furnished one-bedroom house at the Hartman Rock Garden, where they will work alongside the garden’s strong volunteer base and professional advisors on the maintenance, conservation, and interpretation of the garden. Applications are due Wednesday, January 25, 2017. See the attached document for full details and application information. Questions can be directed to krose@hmturnerfoundation.org. Please forward to students, friends, or colleagues who may be interested.

Learn more about Hartman at www.hartmanrockgarden.org.

See the full job description here: Job Description: Conservator-in-Residence, Hartman Rock Garden

 

Kevin Rose
Historian
The Turner Foundation

Grand Re-Opening of St. EOM's Pasaquan on Oct. 22 in Georgia

Posted in Preservation News



eombeard-environmentslideenlarge-1024-1024St. EOM. Photo courtesy Fred C. Fussell.

Pasaquan opens to the public on October 22, 2016 after two years of structural repairs and intense art conservation work. As Eddie Owens Martin, known as St. EOM, would say, the past, present, and future all come together at Pasaquan. And, indeed, they have.

Kohler Foundation was contacted by noted folklorist Fred Fussell of Columbus, Georgia on behalf of the Pasaquan Preservation Society more than ten years ago. The group cared for the site for over two decades, caring for it to the best of their ability but with limited resources. Pasaquan was always of interest to Kohler Foundation, and when Fred made that initial call, it was discussed, but the request was declined. Kohler Foundation was engaged in other preservation projects at the time, and frankly, the project was daunting given the deteriorating conditions and the magnitude of the site.

pasapan2-environmentslideenlarge-1024-1024BEFORE. Photo by Fred Scruton, 2011.

A decade later, when Fred called again, Kohler Foundation was seeking a major project and in the ensuing ten years, we had finished several major projects, including the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. Over the years, we pulled together an amazing team of objects conservators and painting conservators who we trusted and who we knew could do the job. International Artifacts from Houston and Los Angeles, with technicians brought in from Kansas and Wisconsin, handled the structural issues with the art. Parma Conservation of Chicago took on the massive job of color matching, testing, and painting. These two conservation firms worked well as a team and benefited from local talent and interns from the University of Wisconsin and Columbus State University.

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-121959-pmAFTER. Photo courtesy Kohler Foundation, 2016.

A local contractor, T.G. Gregory of Columbus, Georgia, was hired as general contractor. Tim’s crew proved to be exceptional problem solvers and highly skilled craftsmen. They did a superb job renovating and making the buildings functional and sound. With a keen understanding of preservation work, Tim’s group fit in well with the art conservation team, each with their own role, but guiding, helping and contributing to one another along the way.

Pasaquan is Kohler Foundation’s largest and most challenging project to date, but we had a team that worked through it and delivered incredible results.

st-eom-11-environmentslideenlarge-1024-1024 All this was done amid scorching heat and high humidity and constantly dealing with snakes, termites, spiders, and fire ants. Challenges and problems arrived as if by avalanche. Two years of hard work. Sweat and more sweat. Conditions were less than perfect, and there were also budgets and deadlines to be considered. Pasaquan is Kohler Foundation’s largest and most challenging project to date, but we had a team that worked through it and delivered incredible results. 

However, preserving the site is only half the equation. Kohler Foundation never takes on a site without a solid recipient identified to take care of the preserved site into the future. Without someone to care for the art and property, make it accessible to the public, and to offer programing, none of this would make sense. In this case, we were so very fortunate to partner with Columbus State University (Columbus, GA). Forward thinking and appreciative of the arts, CSU is an ideal recipient. Their administration has the courage to step outside the box and they recognize how art can enrich and change people’s lives for the better. They are already taking an interdisciplinary approach and involving other university disciplines to take advantage of this amazing resource and share it with others. Professor Mike McFalls, from CSU’s Art Department, coordinates the site and the programming. We couldn’t have better partners; clearly, what CSU does will continue to impact the region for many years to come.

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-121934-pm

Pasaquan is located outside of Buena Vista in Marion County, GA, and this small community welcomed Kohler Foundation with open arms. Our team immersed themselves in Buena Vista and we have seen Buena Vista take on the challenge to be ready for the opening of Pasaquan. Their community leaders and state tourism officials recognize that Buena Vista and Marion County have a treasure in their midst. It is heart-warming to see this level of involvement from the local community as they welcome visitors to Pasaquan.



 

For more information contact the Director of Pasaquan, Professor Michael McFalls at mcfalls_michael@columbusstate.edu.

To find out more about the opening events, see details on the Pasaquan website.

 

~ Terri Yoho, Executive Director, Kohler Foundation, Inc.

SPACES Honors Watts Towers Committee Founding Member Jeanne Smith Morgan on her 90th Birthday!

Posted in Preservation News, SPACES News
fabulous-foursome-croppedSPACES Director Jo Farb Hernández, Luisa Del Giudice, Jeanne Morgan, Rosie Lee Hooks – Watts Towers Art Center. Photo by Paul Harris, courtesy Luisa Del Giudice

Born on September 20, 1926, Jeanne Smith Morgan was primarily raised by her grandmother, a Nebraska pioneer and one-room schoolteacher who was born in a sod house on the prairie. She learned early about perseverance, hard work, and to focus on what was important; she never used a mirror (it was hung too high for her to see into it as a child), nor a flush toilet or an electric light until she went to first grade. But she learned how to read and write from her grandfather, a house carpenter and farmer whose mother was a full-blooded Kentucky Cherokee, and how to make willow whistles, wren houses, and much more. Her grandparents were born only two decades after the end of the Civil War, so the Northern anti-slavery culture and its songs filled their home; she was taught about equality and equity and grew up to be a strong leftist thinker, sympathetic to those less fortunate than herself. But she also, from the very beginning, had an “eye,” and, after having received accolades for a picture of The Night that she drew with her Christmas Crayolas, her grandmother believed that she was born to be an artist. 

 

In 1940, when Morgan was in 8th grade, her grandmother died, and she moved to Denver with her mother and stepfather. Based on her art work, at age 14 she won a summer art scholarship to Denver University, an award that was granted to her in subsequent years as well. Thanks to her “dysfunctional family,” however, she became a ward of the court two years later; to overcompensate, she became VP of her class, All-School Show Producer, and more. She won a scholarship to Colorado College, but after one semester, with hopes for better art teachers, she scraped together $70 for train fare to New York to “study in the museums and find the socialists.” She married soon after her arrival, and she and her husband became “anti-Stalin social revolutionaries.”

 

p1070504Jeanne Morgan, photo by Jo Farb Hernández.

Morgan moved to Los Angeles in 1948, where she continued to be involved in the art scene on many levels, including painting a large public mural of Emiliano Zapata. Soon she received yet another scholarship, this one to attend the Otis Art Institute to obtain her MFA. Several years later, as a young art student and “trusted socialist,” she was invited to a civil rights meeting in South Central Los Angeles – Watts. The civil rights revolution was boiling, and with her friends traveling to the South to register voters, Morgan had been feeling like a renegade nonparticipant, focused on art school instead of being on the front lines of major social change. She never made it to that meeting, however, because she became lost and hit the eastern dead end of 107th street. Suddenly, she forgot all about the meeting, as she was confronted with one of the most spectacular and monumental works of art ever created by a single human: the Towers of Sabato Rodia.

 

Even awash in trash, the Towers indeed changed Morgan’s life. She vowed to do everything she could to salvage and bring further visibility to this marvelous achievement by this then-unknown artist. She brought other students to Watts with her, organizing Art Students for Watts Towers; even knowing they shouldn’t, they all climbed the Towers anyway, unable to resist. Toward the end of 1958, she learned from her artist friend Mae Babitz that there was a group of older Los Angeles professionals – architects, actors, designers, artists, and teachers who also wanted to support the Towers – and together, at that first December meeting at Hollyhock House, they founded the Committee for the Preservation of Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (CSRTW), the original name of the group that would eventually be incorporated as a nonprofit corporation. Film editor Bill Cartwright and actor Nick King, who had just purchased the Towers from Rodia’s neighbor for $3000, urged the new Committee to work to defeat the City’s recently discovered Demolition Order, an order the neighbor had neglected to disclose when he happily sold them the property. The Committee’s success in doing so – after a gut-wrenching “stress test” in October, 1959 designed by aeronautical engineer Bud Goldstone – was the first step toward preservation, and, indeed, to ultimate worldwide recognition for this spectacular site. 

 

img0357City of Los Angeles Proclamation

But those early years weren’t easy – indeed, none of them were. Morgan describes herself as a “foot soldier” for the CSRTW, drawing up petitions and learning to stand up to the macho anti-cultural city authorities who only saw a pile of junk where she saw a masterpiece. In 1961 she and Mae Babitz traveled to Northern California to meet Rodia, carrying small gifts and telling him of their awe about what he had created. “We intended to amaze and cheer him,” she writes, “and we did.” This was the first of many trips for Morgan, and other CSRTW members followed; during one of those visits, it was arranged for Rodia to speak to students at the nearby Berkeley campus of the University of California in conjunction with a showing of the 1953 William Hale film; there, documented by SPACES founder Seymour Rosen, the artist received a standing ovation. 

 

In 1962 Morgan finished her MFA at Otis, with her thesis concentrating on contemporary methods in stained glass, a project inspired by the Towers and one that, ultimately, provided her with the chemical and technical knowledge to demonstrate varied rates of molecular movement in heat, the exact problem suffered by the Towers. Because Rodia had used a variety of materials with distinct and incompatible molecular structures, they compressed each other as they each uniquely reacted to the sun and heat; this differential movement created cracks that allowed moisture to seep into the metal cores and rust the armatures, thus endangering the structures’ stability. Morgan, therefore, knew on a much more technical level what was necessary for their durability over the long term, knowledge some of the people entrusted with preserving the Towers did not share.

 

As civil rights actions were heating up, members of the CSRTW knew that they could not, in good conscience, ignore the community in which the Towers were located. It had earlier been a diverse and multicultural neighborhood, but by the early 1960s it had become primarily African-American, as the earlier Japanese and Mexican residents had moved on. It was clear to Morgan that the broader philosophical, political, and sociological impact of the sculptures was as profound as their aesthetic power: “The relation of art and success arose. We couldn’t believe that a work of such great value and noble achievement could be so lost, so unknown. It was a shocking testimony to the plight of Watts’ people, who were certainly as ignored as were Rodia’s mighty sculptures. The Towers were like a jewel in a wound.” 

 

So, in 1965, now as Executive Director of the CSRTW, she was sent by her Board to staff an office in a little white house near the Towers that had been purchased two years earlier in order to provide a safe space in which they could offer free art classes to local children. Lucille Krasne, the children’s art instructor at the Pasadena Museum, had volunteered to teach classes near the Towers beginning in 1961, and once the office was established the untrained children ran in and out while their parents, thinking that this was a new social service agency, came in with pleas to help release a son from jail or provide food for a daughter’s baby. Yet while peace was mostly made with members of the community, Morgan recalls a self-styled “Mao Revolutionary” wearing khaki fatigues and a cap emblazoned with a large red star, wearing dark pancake makeup so as to blend in better with the local community, who yelled at her with great hostility: “You gettcher white ass out of here!” Of course, she didn’t. 

img0360City of Los Angeles Proclamation

 

The trust and appreciation of the community has waxed and waned over the years for those mostly white pioneers who, driven by their marvel at Rodia’s constructions, also became involved in trying to improve lives in Watts. After the Watts rebellion in 1965 – from which the Towers emerged unscathed – the neighborhood was no longer seen as safe for white visitors, and the Committee’s only income, derived from tours of the Towers, dried up. Nevertheless, the CSRTW continued working, and through volunteer labor and fundraising – including the “One Square Inch” campaign that sold miniscule portions of the Towers to supporters – succeeded in expanding those art classes, the earliest ones taught outdoors, into a permanent and handsome space, the Watts Towers Art Center. Inaugurated in 1970, it has become one of L.A.’s most dynamic cultural centers, with an ongoing series of exhibitions, performances, and festivals that draw thousands of visitors each year. 

 

By 1975, however, the Committee had no further funds, and some members were aging and/or moving away. Because the City of Los Angeles promised a complete restoration, touting Rodia’s work as a monumental aesthetic achievement, the decision was made to gift them the property. Relieved and reassured, the CSRTW signed a contract that included a clause requiring the City to solicit and receive the Committee’s approval for any matters impacting the Towers. However, the City ignored the contract, and, shortly thereafter, formally sold the Towers to the State of California for $207,000, with a lease-back to operate the Towers for fifty years. The City then transferred management of the Towers from the Department of Cultural Affairs to the Department of Public Works, more commonly in charge of LA’s sewers and streets than of works of art. DPW Director Warren Hollier then contracted with his friend Ralph Vaughn to manage the restoration process. An unlicensed and unscrupulous contractor who hired local youth and directed them to pry off anything that was loose on the Towers, Vaughn’s intent was to reinstall the “rubble” later according to his own designs, rather than those of Rodia. “It’s folk art,” he cried, “and we’re folks! Better than Rodia!”

 

Thanks to pro bono legal help from Carlyle Hall’s Center for Laws in the Public Interest, the CSRTW sued the City, and in 1979 ultimately won case C259603 in Superior Court, cancelling Vaughn’s contract. Further, a complementary Los Angeles Times investigation exposed kickbacks to the head of the DPW, forcing his resignation. Other local officials, including the mayor’s daughter, were also implicated in the illicit purchase of supplies and other materials. But despite this hard-won victory, ill-informed and unethical attempts to conserve the Towers continued in subsequent years; as late as 2006, Morgan and others helped prevent another City-sponsored crew from shoddy and inexpert repair. But they were too late to stop a crew member who destroyed Rodia’s signature – his right handprint placed in the wet mortar just west of the exterior north wall gate. A poor reproduction has now replaced it.

p1070462Rosie Lee Hooks, Jeanne Morgan, and Jack Jones III from the City of Los Angeles, photo by Jo Farb Hernández

Morgan has worked for almost sixty years with the Towers as Executive Director and/or Curator of the CSRTW, and the more involved she became, the more complex and challenging the work became. Nevertheless, she concurrently prolifically continued to produce her own art, and explore the work of those other artists whose works she finds of particular interest. Also a compelling writer, she served as Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Free Press, and both her creative work and her writings analyzing the Towers have appeared in national and international publications. Her most recent publication is An Interpretation of Goya’s Caprichos: With 80 Interpretive Line Drawings. 


Morgan, at 90, now rarely visits the Towers, partly due to her move, around 1981, to Santa Barbara, some two hours north. Nevertheless, she continues to draw them, and to brainstorm and write about them, as she sends out regular missives advocating for their safety and preservation – an increasingly lonely job, as most of her original CSRTW compatriots have passed on or have grown tired of the fight. She is relieved and delighted that now, with trained conservators from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art having undertaking the task of conservation, basing their design on the meticulous vintage photographs taken of the Towersand their hands-on work on real science, new technology may help to better preserve Rodia’s masterpiece for the long term.  

 

unesco-lunchInterested parties and stakeholders in the bid to have the Watts Towers honored as a cultural heritage site through UNESCO. Photo courtesy Luisa Del Giudice

On September 25, Morgan’s 90th birthday was celebrated at the Towers. Joined by new and old friends – including some she had never met in person but with whom she had corresponded over the decades – SPACES hosted a luncheon to celebrate the proclamations of service and gratitude granted her by the City of Los Angeles, her longtime opponent. Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Art Center, and Luisa Del Giudice, prime mover behind the Watts Common Ground Initiative and the initiative to place the Towers on UNESCO’s list for consideration for cultural heritage status, joined SPACES Director Jo Farb Hernández and others in feting Morgan’s achievements. Her long and productive life, working in a variety of ways on a variety of levels, has been spent trying to expand artistic horizons and appreciation for artworks often unknown or underappreciated, and to right often egregious wrongs that others often shrank from challenging. She is an inspiration to all of us to continue this struggle.

 

- Jo Farb Hernández, based on personal emails from Morgan to author, July through September, 2016. Excerpts from this text will be published in the December 2016 issue of Folk Art Messenger.

TAKE ACTION: Tell City Officials to Support the Watts Towers Arts Center and its Programs

Posted in Preservation News, Take Action

 

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 Dear Friends,

 

Last week, the 40th Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and the 35th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival survived a SERIOUS THREAT from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.  Due to their stated administrative strictures, they were going to withhold resources essential for the Festivals’ presentation this year.  At the last minute, after months of sporadic discussions with Watts Towers Arts Center Campus staff and Campus community support groups, the present crisis was averted.

 

We ask you now to help us avoid such a crisis in the future!  We need to show official Los Angeles the depth of support that the Watts Towers and its Arts Center has.  Help us impress upon the representatives of Los Angeles city government the importance of open communication with the staff of the Watts Towers Arts Center and the representatives of the Campus community support groups who have worked over the years on site to plan, organize and present these vital community events.

 

 

We ask you to put your name to the letter we have prepared below and to send it to everyone on the “Mail to:” list beneath the letter.  

Make whatever changes in the letter you feel will better reflect your perspective. Then send the letter to the first address on the list (Danielle Brazell, General Manager, Department of Cultural Affairs) and cc all the following names.

 

 

Please join us in continuing to protect the Watts community from the possibility of losing these public festival treasures that have represented our cultural heritage over four decades.

 

Thank you.

 

 

[SAMPLE LETTER below]

 

Dear Ms. Brazell,

 

I am grateful that the Department of Cultural Affairs has removed the obstructions threatening the production of the 40th Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and the 35th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival, scheduled for presentation on September 24 and 25.  It is appalling to think that these cultural heritage treasures – the oldest continuously running annual music festivals offered free to the public in the City of Los Angeles – might not have been presented this year.  

 

I stand by the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus staff and community support groups. I urge you to allow them in the spirit of open communication and mutual cooperation to continue to serve the City and our community and to showcase the riches of our cultural heritage under one of the world’s great monuments of architectural sculpture.

 

I ask as well that you help them seek the support of the City Councilman in whose district the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus has served to bring world-class arts exhibitions and professional arts and music education for over 50 years.       

 

Rodia’s Nuestro Pueblo, the Watts Towers Arts Center and these historic heritage festivals are beacons of freedom, initiative and multi-ethnic harmony.  The City of Los Angeles cannot afford to have such powerful symbols of peace and community be lost in these troubled times that we all must face together.

 

Sincerely yours,

YOUR NAME

 

In support of 

The Watts Towers Community Action Council

The Friends of the Watts Towers Arts Center

The Parents of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus

The Watts Towers Arts Center Youth Board     

 

 

Mail to:

 

danielle.brazell@lacity.orgdaniel.tarica@lacity.orgLeslie.a.thomas@lacity.orgeric.garcetti@lacity.orgbarbara.romero@lacity.org

Edgar.garcia@lacity.orgluis.rivera@lacity.orgJoel.jacinto@la.city.orgMike.davis@lacity.orgcontroller.galperin@lacity.org

joe.buscaino@lacity.orgCouncilmember.wesson@lacity.orgdavid.ryu@lacity.org; councilmember.harris-dawson@lacity.org; councilmember.price@lacity.org; paul.koretz@lacity.org; Markridley-thomas@bos.lacounty.gov; sawoods@parks.ca.gov; leslie.hartzell@parks.ca.gov; Terry.nicholson@mail.house.gov; 

Ericfboyd@mailhouse.gov; lucy.walker@sen.ca.gov; Holly.mitchell@sen.ca.gov; Michelle.chambers@asm.ca.gov

Keara.joe@asm.ca.gov; craig.watson@arts.ca.gov; kelan10@att.netwatts.towers1@lacity.org

 

 

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