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Fly Away With Me

In Watts, Art That Doubles as an Outdoor Playroom

October 05, 2003|NELSON HANDEL

Heavy-gauge steel bars protect the windows of the homes around Ted Watkins Park in Watts. If you have private space here, you must protect it fiercely from the gangs and poverty that thrive like a cancer. Small bungalows and townhomes dot the area, but public housing sets the tone. Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Ozie B. Gonzaque Village--some of the most dangerous housing projects in the nation--are home to many of the kids and families who come to the park. For them, Ted Watkins is a place to get outside and escape the urban indoors.

This past May, residents encountered something rarely seen in a park like this--contemporary art. Even more startling was the subject. On an undulating platform two feet off the ground, visitors confronted the rippling form of "Magic Carpet/Home," the floor plan of a Nickerson Gardens apartment painted on soft rubber playground matting. Their confining domestic spaces had been turned inside out.

"We didn't understand it at first," says Don Johnson, park recreation service leader. But when he saw the kids' response, it started to make sense. "It lifts kids away," he says. "Everything is open to you when you take down the boundaries."

Transformative delight is exactly what Cuban-born artist Maria Elena Gonzalez had in mind when she thought to fuse the limited boundaries of housing project life with the fanciful myth of the flying carpet. "I hoped kids would get a taste of what's possible," she says, "to show them a window or open a door to their imagination." The six-month installation's interactive nature is part of the fun. "This breaks through the aura of art as somehow untouchable," she says. "When kids play, they are in heaven."

Neighborhood kids ride their bikes, skateboard, tumble and play "house" on the sculpture, Johnson says. After months of rugged use, the installation has the lived-in patina of a cherished item. "Home is not anchored geographically," Gonzalez says. "It can go anywhere you want it to go."

The Watts piece is the latest in a series that began near Gonzalez's studio outside Brooklyn's infamous Red Hook housing projects. That first "Magic Carpet/Home" installation inspired local residents to reclaim a park that had been overrun by drug dealers, and a similar installation followed in Pittsburgh.

The Los Angeles version was produced by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). Director/curator Irene Tsatsos saw the work as a chance for LACE to break down walls between its Hollywood home and South-Central. "Art has the power to help us think in fresh ways about who we are and how we engage the world around us," she says. "This imaginative space invites people to literally think outside the box."

Art you can play on might seem startling at first, but according to Johnson, it seems to be working its magic. "It tells the kids to go and experiment," he says, "and I can't tell you why, but it makes you smile, too."


"Magic Carpet/Home," by Maria Elena Gonzalez, through Nov. 24 at Ted Watkins Park, 1335 E. 103rd St., Los Angeles. For information, call LACE at (323) 957-1777.

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