SANTA ANA — John Outterbridge, sculptor and painter, community servant, sometime musician and constant observer of life, delivered a lecture here Saturday that was more like poetic free association than anything else.
Known around the country for his penetrating sculptures made with found objects, Outterbridge, 59, retired in September after nearly 17 years as director of the Watts Towers Art Center, a community facility next to Sabato (Sam) Rodia's landmark spires in South-Central L.A.
Casually dressed in baggy green pants, a bright red sweater and a Nigerian cap, he came to the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art to discuss "Borders," a multimedia group exhibit he co-curated with OCCCA exhibitions chairman Gomez Flores. (There through Jan. 3, it's part of a collaborative effort with the Irvine Fine Arts Center, which is staging "Crossing Borders," a similarly themed show, through Feb. 7.)
During his brief but wide-ranging talk, Outterbridge addressed the meaning and power of art, human potential and passion, his own ethnic heritage and youth, and the exhibit's underlying concept of "personal borders," both physical and psychological.
Personal borders may separate one's interior and exterior worlds, he said, asserting that "artists are very internal people" who reach deep inside for expression and inspiration and, if courageous enough, "come out again and share that with you."
These borders also may have to do with the people and things we include in our lives, he continued, describing his mother's practice of avidly collecting dolls. "She never stopped loving dolls; they were part of her perimeter. She had her family, but the dolls were another family."
A series of poignant, fetish-like dolls probably are Outterbridge's best-known works (he made the first ones years ago for his now-grown daughter). One piece in the series, about slavery, is composed of black dolls chained to a cart, clad in vibrant colors to reflect the power of perseverance and the strength of the human spirit, he once said.
"Art always creates the possibility to break down barriers," he said Saturday. "It allows us to see through walls and see through tragedies."
He went on to tell his ethnically mixed audience that the generations of African-Americans from whom he descended "are older than this country's Constitution. We're not new people here."
He recalled that when he was growing up in North Carolina, no one locked doors in his neighborhood, and "we took care of the old folks because we loved them," and never sent them to homes for the elderly.
"The trees were great!," he went on. "I knew the woodpeckers. We knew all the churches. There was a Catholic Church in my back yard and I went there all the time because they had a great Ping-Pong table."
He said he has a different kind of appreciation for Los Angeles, and that he learned a great deal from gang members he met while working at the Watts Towers Art Center.
"What you meet is courage that gets out of line," he said. "When a kid tells you the (U.S.) Senate is like a gang at times, or that the House of Representatives acts like a gang, you think, man, is this kid only 16? What you start to realize is that human potential comes in a great diversity of packages."
As his contributions to "Borders," Outterbridge selected works by Cindy Evans, Toni Love, Olu Kwasi Osei, Keith Williams and Stanley Wilson, all from Los Angeles, all "friends and people I've seen grow." Flores chose works by Ray Macias of Santa Ana, Pat Warner of L.A., and Oscar J. Martinez of Walnut.
Since leaving the art center, Outterbridge has discussed his hopes to help develop an organization that would sponsor cultural events in South-Central L.A. A flutist, he also wants to establish a community orchestra. Mainly, though, he wants to spend more time on his primary passion, the making of art. "I just want to paint some right now, and make some music, and keep myself open to hear things."
* "Borders" continues through Jan. 3 at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 3621 W. MacArthur Blvd., Space 111, Santa Ana. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Information: (714) 549-4989. "Crossing Borders" continues through Feb. 7 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine. Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Mondays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Information: (714) 552-1078.