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Artist-Teacher Turned Trash Into Treasure

Memorial: Watts event honors John Riddle, who often used discarded items to depict the African American experience.

April 08, 2002|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deborah Riddle will always remember her father on trash day.

It was on those mornings, during the short commute to school, that John Riddle, a prolific painter and sculptor, would scan the curbsides for "art materials" from his neighbors' trash cans. Old pipes. Junked kitchen electronics. Used garden tools.

For young Riddle, who recalls riding to her Los Angeles elementary school with other people's garbage in the car, it was a humiliating experience.

But even she had to acknowledge her father had a knack for transforming that twisted and broken heap of castoffs into something special. Into art.

"Then, it was glorious," Riddle told more than 100 people packed into the Watts Towers Art Center on Sunday. "But getting there could be torturous."

The standing-room-only crowd smiled along with Riddle at the memory of her father, who died in Atlanta on March 3 of complications from a heart attack.

Sunday's event was held to remember the man who dedicated his life to the arts--painting it, teaching it and often creating it with other people's junk. Friends and relatives remembered him as a strong man who taught others about the African American struggle through his work.

Even the "found art," as it's been called, was part of that message, said Riddle's oldest son, Anthony.

"For him, the message was about what was possible in all that discarded material that came from people who have been largely discarded as well," Anthony Riddle said.

Through his paintings, Riddle often invoked black leaders of the past, such as his painting of Harriet Tubman that hangs now in M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica.

"He understood that for black people, it's important to embrace all of our experiences in the past and not sweep everything under the rug," said gallery owner Eric Hanks.

"He was able to look into himself and look at the situation of black people as a whole and tell a story."

But Riddle was not important to his community only because of his work as an artist. He was an example of a dedicated family man who worked just as hard to be a success in his private life.

He joined the Air Force in 1953 and later married Carmen Riddle, his wife of nearly 50 years. They had six children.

After the Air Force, Riddle worked various jobs during the day and went to night school for nine years, earning a master's degree in fine arts from Cal State Los Angeles.

Through it all, he practiced the art he loved so much. He even taught some of his artistic philosophy at high schools in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

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Watts Riots Were a Major Influence

Perhaps the event that influenced him the most was the infamous 1965 Watts riots. Afterward, Riddle roamed the burned-down stores and debris-riddled streets looking for inspiration, for a way to tell of the tragedy that was happening there.

He eventually stumbled upon a cash register in a burned-out store. That register was used in an exhibit he called "The Ghetto Merchant," put on display in 1989 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

Riddle suffered a debilitating heart attack in Atlanta after flying there to visit family for Thanksgiving. He lingered in the hospital for months before dying last month. Those who knew him said they will hear him and his messages every time they look at his art.

"A really good artist can accomplish all the elements of pure art and still create a message," Anthony Riddle said. "And that's what he did. He created art without ever taking away from the message."

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