Running Into Folk Art While Wandering

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Whether you are on foot or in a car, wandering offers the opportunity to notice many of the little things that life has to offer and, even better, encourages you to take the time to examine them. Folk Art is one of those especially wonderful little things to notice when wandering.

Earlier this week I had the chance to wander around, what is, perhaps, the most remarkable example of Folk Art in the world – Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The Towers are currently being considered for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are currently only eleven UNESCO cultural sites in the country!

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The Towers are amazing. There are so many details that you could spend hours looking at them and still find something that you hadn’t noticed before.

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The Towers were built by an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia. He built them without any help, with only simple hand tools, from scrap and salvaged materials, over a thirty year period from the 1920s to the 1950s. He wanted to build something special and did.

Click here to watch a very interesting twelve minute 1957 documentary film showing Simon Rodia building his towers. (Please note that the narrator of the film incorrectly pronounces Rodia as “Rodilla”.)

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If you look closely you can see Simon Rodia's use of sea shells and broken bottles to provide the details.

If you look closely you can see Simon Rodia’s use of sea shells, pieces of tile, and broken bottles to provide the details.

Here you can see the use of broken plates to add color and detail.

Here you can see the use of broken plates to add color and detail.

Here are impressions of the tools Rodia used to build the Towers.

Here are impressions of the tools Rodia used to build the Towers. Look carefully and you’ll Simon Rodia’s initials “SR” etched into the mortar.

Here you can see "1921" the year that Simon Rodia started building the Towers.

Here you can see “1921” the year that Simon Rodia started building the Towers.

And here you can see "1765". The street address for the Towers is 1765 E 107th Street.

And here you can see “1765”. The street address for the Towers is 1765 E 107th Street.

And finally the remaining entry way to what was at one time Rodia's house - Nuestro Pueblo (our town).

And finally over this entry way you can see what Rodia called his creation – Nuestro Pueblo (our town).

While Los Angeles may have the Watts Towers, Bisbee, Arizona may have the highest concentration of Folk Art of any place in the country if not the world. When my dog Petey and I were researching the book The Bisbee Stairs, we found that we could not turn a corner in Bisbee without running into some sort of extraordinary art or decoration. We found every house and yard in Bisbee to have its own artistic signature. No two houses were the same. And best yet, most of them could only be found by navigating a maze of outdoor public stairways. We learned that Bisbee is, perhaps, the most interesting small town in America.

You'll meet new and interesting people as you wander around Bisbee.

You’ll meet new and interesting people as you wander around Bisbee.

You'll see strange creatures.

You’ll see strange creatures.

Where else but Bisbee will you see old Schwinn bicycles used as art work?

Where else but Bisbee will you see old Schwinn bicycles used as an art work?

Or for that matter an old truck door used as a gate?

Or for that matter an old truck door used as a gate?

And if you're looking for decorated walls, you're home.

And if you’re looking for decorated walls, you’re home.

And this wall by the artist Fred Albert has some resemblance to Watts Towers.

And this wall by the late artist Fred Albert has some resemblance to Watts Towers in its use of plates.

And you'll find this guy on a mountain top overlooking Bisbee.

And you’ll find this guy on a mountain top overlooking Bisbee.

These few pictures of Folk Art in Bisbee don’t even scratch the surface of what you’ll find when you wander around Bisbee. But the great thing about Folk Art in general is that you’ll find it everywhere you go. Here are just a few examples:

You can find folk art on cars and vans, such as this one in Los Angeles.

You can find folk art on cars and vans, such as this one in Los Angeles.

Or this station wagon in Bisbee.

Or on this station wagon in Bisbee.

Folk Art can be whimsical such as this piece in Los Angeles.

Folk Art sometimes can be whimsical such as this piece in Los Angeles.

While other pieces can be a bit unusual, such as this one also in Los Angeles.

Or just unusual, such as this piece also in Los Angeles.

If you're driving in New Mexico, you spot roadside shrines, called Descansos, to honor those killed in a car crash.

And if you’re driving in New Mexico, you are likely to spot a roadside shrine like the this one. They are called Descansos, and are built to honor those killed in a car crash.

If you're driving through the high plains of west central Kansas, where there are no trees, you'll fence posts made out of limestone dug up out of the ground.

If you’re drive happens to take you through the high plains of west central Kansas, where there are no trees, you might find fence posts made out of limestone. At the time that this area was settled by ranchers and farmers, it was easier and more economical to cut local limestone out the ground than it was to ship in wooden fence posts from far away.

If you're driving through a small Hispanic settlement in New Mexico, you might find a Virgin of Guadalupe carved into an old cottonwood tree. This one is in the community of La Joya.

If you’re driving through a small Hispanic settlement in New Mexico, you might find the Virgin of Guadalupe carved into an old cottonwood tree like this one is in the small community of La Joya.

If you wander through an old Hispanic burial ground in New Mexico, you might find an example of punched tin work. The saying on marker says "Que Dios Te Bendigo" which means "God Bless You". The marker dates to 1993 and is all in Spanish. Later markers are in English. A cultural anthropoligists could determine when Hispanic communities in New Mexico transitioned from Spanish speaking to English speaking. This is another example of what you can learn when you wander.

If you wander through an old Hispanic burial ground in New Mexico, you might find an example of punched tin work. The saying on this piece says “Que Dios Te Bendigo” which means “God Bless You”. This marker is dated 1933 and is in Spanish. Later markers in the burial ground are in English. A cultural anthropoligists could examine burial markers to determine when various Hispanic communities in New Mexico transitioned from Spanish speaking to English speaking. That’s one of the great things about wandering, there is always something to discover and learn.

If you wander around a New England cemetery, you'll find wonderful carbed headstones. Several decades ago, tombstone rubbing was a popular hobby. This burial ground is in Concord, Massachusetts.

If you have a chance to wander around an old New England cemetery, you are likely to find wonderful carved headstones. Some of the tombstones can have very sobering statements. Several decades ago it was quite popular to place a piece of paper on the tombstone and rub it with a crayon to capture the image of the stone. This burial ground is in Concord, Massachusetts.

Here are some decorated concrete footing for a long gone railroad viaduct in Los Angeles. The artwork has changed every time I have walked this path.

Folk Art can be found in the most unusual of places. These decorated concrete footings in Los Angeles are from a long gone railroad viaduct. The artwork on the footings has been different each time I have walked this path.

And you can sometimes find Folk Art stenciled on the sidewalk.

And don’t forget to look down, you can sometimes find Folk Art stenciled on the sidewalk.

And finally an example from overseas. Here's a statue of a perigrino (pilgrim) along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

And finally you are likely to find Folk Art when you travel overseas. Here’s a hand made statue of a perigrino (pilgrim) along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He’s pointing the way to Santiago.

As you can see, Folk Art is everywhere. It’s just waiting there for you to notice it when you wander.

5 Comments

  1. Great coverage of a fascinating, fanciful and fun topic. I especially enjoyed the very valuable historic video on the creation of the Watts Towers. What an incredible project – and how lucky that town was to have Simon Rodia’s dream become reality in its midst. And I really want to visit Bisbee! Thank you, David, for another wonderful blog post

  2. Nice post David. So much variety in the locations and the types of folk expression.

  3. Nice article–with even a nod to tombstone rubbing :)!

  4. That’s an excellent blog post, and you’re right: folk art is all around us, if we open our awareness to it.

  5. Thanks, David. I really enjoyed this post. I’ll be looking around for folk art from now on.

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