Enduring Lessons From Watts

In kindergarten was when I (and probably many others) first heard the saying “one person’s trash becomes another’s treasure.” This adage is practically a mantra to art educators and artists alike. Lack of funding for arts in schools and communities means we are often stifled by budgetary constraints. This predicament requires outside the box thinking and flexible means of making art in both our own studios and with students in our classrooms. We have all likely had teachers send notes home asking for toilet paper rolls and other items that were then upcycled for interdisciplinary art projects.

Discovering the potential to repurpose a range of non-traditional materials as a form of communication and expression, is a key lesson that the arts teach us. Artists have utilized found objects from their surrounding environment for as long as human culture has existed. This is evident from one of the earliest known artworks from the prehistoric era, a sculpture of a dog-like animal fashioned out of a sacrum bone from an extinct species of camelid (in the camel family). Although making contemporary interpretations of prehistoric art is tricky, we know that art making has been universally important to people throughout time and place. The fact that such an object exists means that it held a certain cultural significance to the artist(s) and perhaps their culture at large.

In our era, we have the benefit of having written and recorded records from artists themselves, which illuminate the intent, process and cultural context behind their works of art. One example is the artistic and educational impetus behind the making of a collective display of assemblage (works of art created by combining and arranging found objects) sculptures by a group of artists responding to a devastating event at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The catastrophic event was the Watts Riots, also known as the Watts Rebellion. August 11, 1965 marked the beginning of six days of turmoil as a result of boiling over racial tension and disenfranchisement in Watts, a historically segregated neighborhood within Los Angeles, California. Rioting and clashes between citizens and the police led to thirty-four deaths, over one-thousand injuries and more than forty-million dollars in property damage. 

In the aftermath of the riots, Los Angeles-based artists Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell collected debris from the wreckage, which they transformed into works of art they considered to be symbolic of the community’s vitality and resilience. In addition to the group of assemblage sculptures made by Purifoy and Powell, other artists were recruited to create additional works with the materials. The resulting sixty-six artworks were presented in 1966 at the Watts Summer Festival under the title, 66 Signs of Neon. The name of the exhibition references the burnt out and shattered signage from Watts’ businesses, which during the riots melted down into the landscape, essentially becoming raw material for artistic repurposing. The inaugural Watts Summer Festival was held on the one year anniversary of the Watts Riots and became an annual event with a mission to highlight Black culture and heritage.

Prior to their contributions to the Watts Summer Festival, Purifoy and Powell were notable members of the Los Angeles art scene and also worked to provide educational and social services to the community. They established the Watts Towers Art Center in 1964 with a goal to teach art to intergenerational students and provide a platform for local artists to develop their careers. The arts center was still in its infancy when the riots occurred, but rather than succumb to the disparaging circumstances, the event served as a teachable moment and rallying cry for social and cultural transformation. In Purifoy and Powell’s minds, it further accentuated the need for public art education and funding for the arts at large.

Noah Purifoy with his students during an art class at the Watts Towers Art Center. Photograph via The Noah Purifoy Foundation.

More than an exhibition, Purifoy and Powell considered 66 Signs of Neon to be an extension of the art-centered pedagogical and placemaking work they facilitated at the Watts Towers Art Center. They wanted 66 Signs to be not only a means for realizing beauty in the wake of tragedy and struggle, but as a way to show the benefits that art education can have on human development and wellness. Purifoy wrote that “It is not unreasonable to state that everyone is creative, that creativity ranks alongside food and shelter as absolute necessities. But art education in most public schools is seen as mere recreation. Yet in reality it is that aspect of education which stimulates the whole process of learning.” Therefore, the exhibition was a way of advocating for art to be implemented in schools across Los Angeles in an effort to humanize the curriculum and empower students to hone their self-expression and criticality. 

Purifoy’s statement echoes the work of art educator Elliot Eisner, who was instrumental in advancing Discipline Based Art Education, which is essentially the inclusion of art as a core subject in modern day school curricula. As part of his steadfast advocacy for making the arts part of the core curriculum in schools, Eisner (1965) stated: “I would like to propose that the art education curriculum be built along three major lines of focus. These three foci are the productive aspects of art, the critical aspects, and the historical aspects.” To support his proposal, Eisner came up with a list of lessons that the arts teach. These art-centered contributions to learning induce well-rounded intellectual and life-affirming outcomes. The following lessons are paraphrased and annotated from Eisner’s 2002 book, The Arts and the Creation Of Mind

  1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Eisner explains that “Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.”

  2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.
  3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. Every culture throughout the course of humanity has created works of art. The history of art is essentially the history of humankind. In fact, art reveals more about history than we would have known otherwise, because artistic vocabulary existed before the advent of written language and any known linguistic records. One of the most significant lessons the arts impress upon us is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

  4. The arts teach flexible purposing. The common adage “there are no mistakes in art” enables children to explore complex forms of problem solving, and to realize that “purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.”

  5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition. Art is a language in and of itself. In fact, it might even be considered a near universally native language because it can be widely understood despite other linguistic limitations. Art has also been a crucial medium in facilitating the development of good verbal and written communication skills. This is evident through collaborations between artist/educator Tim Rollins and his students in K.O.S.; and also exemplified in several popular art-centered educational television programs, especially The Electric Company, Sesame Street, and Arthur, which are intended to help children develop grammatical, verbal, and reading skills (in addition to facilitating learning in math, science, and socialization skills).

  6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. Artistic engagement requires a person to think critically and astutely on macro and micro levels, including inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning. This important life lesson carries over into civic duty and activism, i.e. the phrase “Think globally, act locally.” The arts help us to break down big concepts into visual and symbolic processes expressions. Synthesizing “the big picture” of a particular subject, lesson, or unit into differentiated forms of understanding is a major part of teaching. This is known in the field of education as “backwards design,” a method of curriculum planning where the overarching goals are defined prior to choosing instructional methods, learning segments, and forms of assessment.

  7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. The insights gathered through working artfully with materials serve both functional and innovative purposes. This is evident through Frederich Fröbel’s Gifts and Occupations, Maria Montessori’s Didactic Materials, and Loris Malaguzzi’s theory of one hundred languages. 

  8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. Eisner explains, “When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.”

  9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

Despite these enormous benefits, art is often one of the first subjects to be cut in many of today’s budget conscious and standardization focused schools. 

Eisner’s final lesson that the arts teach us (and/or rather question us to ponder) is whether we truly value a good quality of life and want to experience living within an empathetic and democratic society. The way that we know, according to Eisner, is by whether or not a school offers its students significant opportunities throughout the day to “explore the world in their own way through the arts.” He noted that “The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.” If schools neglect to offer opportunities for students to flex their studio habits of mind and think creatively they will “miss out on a form of experience that will be necessary for them in order to attain a high quality of life when they graduate. Engagement with the arts supports students to be able to discern what is important for them with regard to quality of life” (Eisner, 2002). 

Purifoy also noted that including art as a core subject in schools would help prepare students to discover themselves, understand others and find value and meaning in the world around them. He reflected that the ultimate purpose of 66 Neon Signs, “was to demonstrate to the community of Watts, to Los Angeles, and to the world at large, that education through creativity is the only way left for a person to find himself in this materialistic world.”

After a long career serving Los Angeles via the arts and public service, Purifoy settled down in the Mojave Desert community of Joshua Tree. He utilized the vast and ample environment nearby his home to create Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Since its foundation, the open-air museum has been free and open to the public. In keeping his commitment to community and artful learning, he also established the Noah Purifoy Foundation in 1998. The foundation continues to preserve and present Purifoy’s work, and offers unique opportunities for teachers and students to utilize the museum’s collection for interdisciplinary learning.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot. “Curriculum Ideas in a Time of Crisis”. Art Education. vol.18, no. 7, 1965, pp. 7-12. doi:10.2307/3190712

Eisner, Elliot. “What the Arts Do for the Young,” SchoolArts, September, 2002, pp. 16-17.

Eisner, Elliot. 2002. “What the Arts Teach and How It Shows.” In The Arts and the Creation Of Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 70-92

Purifoy, Noah and Michel, Ted. 1966. 66 Signs of Neon (exhibition catalog). Published online by the Noah Purifoy Foundation: https://www.noahpurifoy.com/s/Junk-Art-2266-Signs-of-Neon22-catalog.pdf


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s