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WATTS : Arts Center to Mark 25th Anniversary

March 19, 1995|STEPHEN GREGORY

More than 200 people are expected to gather today at the Watts Towers Arts Center to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The cultural hub of Watts, the center is nestled in the shadow of the world-famous glass and ceramic-tile towers, completed in 1954 after 33 years of work by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.

The arts center hosts exhibits, concerts and plays, and seeks to encourage creativity in the community with weekend, evening and after-school art courses.

The center also sponsors weekly visits to area schools by local visual and performing artists in an effort to teach youngsters the importance of art.

More than 100 students from outside the community get a similar message every week as the center hosts tours of its galleries and the landmark towers for school-age children across Los Angeles County.

"It isn't there as an ornament," said Noah Purifoy, an artist who was the center's first director. "It's there to serve a purpose in the community."

Purifoy, a highly regarded sculptor who creates art with junk, helped launch the forerunner of the arts center in 1964 when he and other local artists opened a community arts program in Rodia's four-room wooden house, "a stone's throw" from the towers.

The center was the brainchild of the Watts Towers Committee that had formed a few years earlier to head off city plans to tear down Rodia's masterpiece.

Armed with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a master's degree in social service administration, Purifoy set out to create a community center that "not only taught about art, but also taught about life."

Instructors and staff imparted lessons on respecting others through their treatment of students and each other, said the 77-year-old sculptor, who served on California's arts promotion council for 11 years.

Purifoy was director of the arts center when the Watts riots broke out in 1965, an event that focused widespread attention on the facility both as a cultural hub and a solution to the social ills that helped spark the unrest.

In the wake of the riots, the center was looked upon as an important tool in helping get neighborhood youths off the streets.

"It was a very important part of the healing process in that community," said Cecil Fergerson, a community curator at the center who specializes in African American art history and culture.

It was also at the center that Purifoy created his most famous work: an assemblage of debris from the riots called "66 Signs of Neon." He left the center in 1965 to tour the country with the sculpture.

The cramped, decaying wooden house endured four more years as the arts center until it was torn down to make room for the more spacious current facility on East 107th Street, which was dedicated March 1, 1970.

Six years later, the city took over the center and installed its longest-serving director, John Outterbridge, who guided the facility until 1993.

Under Outterbridge's leadership, the center launched the yearly Jazz and Day of the Drum festivals, which each summer draw 15,000 people.

Fergerson said the importance of the arts center continues to endure because it exposes youngsters to African American art and history they may not get elsewhere.

"It gives people in this community some sense of their contributions to American culture," he said.

A performance by jazz artist Buddy Collette will highlight a three-hour anniversary reception today at the center, 1727 E. 107th St.

The event, scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., will also feature poetry readings by writer-youth lecturer Jacinto Rhines and novelist Eric Priestly, who is an alumnus of the Watts Writers Workshop.

In honor of Purifoy and other past directors and staff members at the center, a multimedia exhibition of their artwork has been displayed. The exhibition, which is open Tuesdays through Sundays, closes April 30.

Information: (213) 847-4646.

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