In the beginning...
a statement by one of CAAG's founders to provide historical context.
NEWS BULLETIN: Concerned Artists Action Group forms in Watts!
STATE OF ART IN WATTS
ANTHONY "AMDE" HAMILTON
Co-Founder and Member
THE WATTS PROPHETS
I am a poet, not a journalist, poetry is the form I prefer to write in, but today I am compelled to write this article as I see and experience the state of art and the state of the community artists in Watts, California.
In early June I happened to go to a community meeting at one of the major educational institutions in Watts. They were discussing their annual jazz festival.
The coordinator stated that this year's concert would be dedicated to great jazz trumpet players. He read off a long list of trumpet players. When he finished I was shocked. He had not mentioned Watts' greatest trumpet player: Don Cherry.
All over the world they have Don Cherry Days-- in Europe and in America. Yet here was a festival in honor of trumpet players in the community where Don was raised, where his family still lives, and he was not mentioned.
When I mentioned Don Cherry, the coordinator stated that everything was already in motion and he would not be able to change anything. What a pity and an insult to Don Cherry's family and friends in Watts, in America, and in the world!!
A community artist must inspire, motivate and teach young creative minds in the community. They have a serious obligation to the community they are paid to serve. They must know the artists within the community, along with the culture, traditions and history of the community. He or she is the keeper of creativity who works in consort with the other motivating art forces in a community.
I am not in any way saying that artists from the outside are not welcome to become a member of our community. Artists from all over America have made honorable contributions to their adopted communities. But they must not forget their role within the artistic framework of a community.
As a Community Griot I am always concerned with the history and tradition of my community, I pay close attention to how it is presented.
In Watts there is a Watts Walk of Fame, it is in Ted Walkins Park, the park that I used to walk through going to St. Lawrence Catholic school during my grammar school days. It is a place of many happy memories in my life. It is the park where Roger Mosley (one of Watts' most distinguished actors) was a life guard each summer. As I walked the Watts Walk of Fame I recognized very few names, I didn't see Watts' first Rhodes Scholar Stan Sanders. Across the street from the park lived Sonny Criss, in the general area lived Charlie Mingus, Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and so many other greats like Valerie Brisco Hooks, FloJo, etc. yet not one of these names were there. It is more a walk of fame where friends pat each other on the back. Some names are deserving, others require explaining when it concerns the history of Watts.
Positive images are very important to the youth of a community. They become role models for children who sometime see negative images all day on a daily basis. If we don't as a community exalt our positive images, then who will?
In Watts today there are very few art spaces for the community artist to congregate and create.
Most venues are abandoned or controlled by non artists or artists who have no stake in the community-- artists who, in most cases, are trying with all the energy they can muster to make a name for themselves in the commercial art world of museums, journals and commissions.
If they are musicians, they are searching for a Hit. If they are writers, they want to be on Oprah. To rise in the art world is a job in itself, it is all-encompassing and leaves little room for anything else. They keep their eyes on the prize in the elusive art world, not on the budding young creative minds in the community.
IF HISTORY IS A TEACHER....
If history is a teacher, then maybe some past history concerning the art scene in Watts will shed some light on why we find such a confused and neglected situation in our Watts art community today.
Many years ago there arose a controversy in Watts concerning who would be appointed director of one of the major community art centers. The main point of the argument was: should the artist live and have a history in the community?
In other words, should he be the best that we had in our community, or should we allow a person who knew very little about the culture, tradition and the history of Watts come in?
Both artists were known in different segments of the community. The homegrown artist was known across the country for his poster art that spread across the Black community during the late 60's and 70's. The outside artist was well known in the more traditional art circles of the day, the art world of museums and wealthy collectors.
For us, the homegrown artist's claim to fame was that he lived and worked daily in the community for years. In fact, we in Watts called him the father of the poster movement. He had one goal concerning his art that he constantly voiced: He saw almost no Black art in any of the homes that he visited in his community. He looked around at the Black artists that he knew and worked with and realized that none had any art that was affordable to the people of Watts. At the time the homegrown artist was a student at Otis Art Institute studying under Charles White, who always praised this artist's talent and commitment to his community. The homegrown artist set a community goal early in his development, it was to create art that reflected his community and was affordable to the general community.
But the outside artist, because of his influential outside connections, was appointed director of our community arts center.
His goals weren't so clear, in fact not clear at all. Over time his goals were revealed. He grew in stature in the prestigious art world. You can find his art hanging in the best museums, see it in the finest of art magazines and journals. Because of his stature in the art world of wealthy museums he somehow became the community spokesman concerning art in the Watts community. Because of his connections and position he always had information concerning grants, rfp's [commission opportunities] and art projects. Most time the community artists would never hear of the opportunities. If the outside artist didn't keep them for himself, he gave them to his close personal friends, regardless of the community artists that may have earned the opportunity by way of their creative deeds in the community.
There was another major problem with the outside artist, it was his type of art, his form was most times abstract art.
The homegrown artist's form was pictures and scenes that clearly reflected the characters in our community. It was art that we could understand. We recognized and related to the characters and scenes depicted. I have nothing against abstract art or any other kind of art, except that it has little effect in a poor community where reality is sharp and clear!
The outside artist continued to grow in prestige, he began to travel, lecture and get commissions. The greater he got the more the community was neglected. He had little time to protect and to cultivate the young artists in the community. His goal was to elevate himself, not the community. He stayed at the center almost 20 years, retired, and continues to influence the art scene in Watts. As of this day this center does not relate to the general community. It is manned by people who know very little about Watts, the people, their history and their tradition. They drive in each day with their windows and doors locked tight, unable to relate, appear frightened of the community, do their time, and leave by the quickest route before dark
As I observe these so- called community artists come and go each day I wonder how can they claim the title of community artists in a poor community, when not one piece of their original art is affordable to the general community. If none of the art is designed to hang on the walls of the homes and institutions in the community, then what is their purpose and value to the community? The artist whose goal is to hang in the best museums in the world, most of the time will not design art to hang on the walls of community homes. I would like to make it clear that I see no fault with artists whose goals are to hang their art in famous places, except that he or she should not take a position as a community artist in a community center.
THE MAFUNDI INSTITUTE
Shortly after the Watts rebellion in 1964,the Unitarian and the Presbyterian Church funded the Watts Happening Coffee House. The finest artists in Watts started to gather. Creativity was everywhere.
From this coffee house grew Mafundi Institute. It came about from the attention caused by a film titled "Johnnie Gigs Out". Two of the major principals in the film were Paris Earl, a community actor who had a leading role in the film and Jimmie Sherman, who collaborated with his class to write the script.
The Mafundi Institute was the community's dream facility for
artists. It was designed by artists for artists. It had a large stage
and a coffee shop with a built-in stage for poets to express themselves.
It had darkrooms for the photographers and film makers, large art spaces
for the visual artists, a recording studio for the musicians, and we
were working on a radio station. It had office space for artists. It
was a wonderful and progressive art scene that had support from Watts
A group of community artists went to the board and asked to be allowed to take over the administration and to be allowed to seek funding. I can still hear the chairman of the board screaming at the top of his voice "No,no, no we don't need them."
Many of the members of the board were puzzled, because the members of the group who were asking to save the art space were the workers and instructors who were there daily, coordinating many of the activities.
The artists were finally put out of this beautiful space and it was turned into a city office building.
Paris Earl died struggling to start a children's theater. Jimmie Sherman still has a literacy program that is community-based. Both are true examples of community artists who got their start in a true and thriving community arts center.
The new managers of this city-owned building evidently knew little or didn't care about the history of the building. They renamed the main hall Harmonica Fats Hall. I have nothing against the great Harmonica Fats, who has lived and worked in Watts for years, except he had nothing to do with the founding and development of the art center whose legacy is still a living part of the Watts community today.
My question is: where are the names like Marge and Gower Champion, Emanuel Lewis, Jimmie Sherman, Bill Marshal, Paris Earl, Mary Jane Hewitt and so many others who put their heart and souls into that facility?
Each day as I pass this abandoned art center I feel sad. I see children all over the community standing on corners, wandering here and there with nothing to do, wonderful bright creative children wasting away day after day after day!
As we approach the year 2000 it is imperative that the community artists be empowered.
Roger Mosley and Budd Schulberg (Academy Award-winning screenwriter for On The Waterfont) are examples of artists who are able to empower powerless artists, by example. They are able to wear both caps, i.e., community artists, commercial artists.
This style of community artists is a Watts tradition. Our musicians always went to Hollywood and other spots, but they could not wait to get back to Central Ave and play for their community. Roger Mosley, in that same tradition, worked hard to develop his craft as a actor. It was never easy for him, yet he always kept his hand in the community.
Roger Mosley taught acting classes, directed community plays, giving them exposure they never would have gotten without him. He recommended people in the community for parts in movies. He worked in the community until his schedule was too demanding to do both. He then began to send resources back to the community. He continued to empower artists in his community even when he wasn't there.
The Watts Writers Workshop
Budd Schulberg was different in that he came from an affluent background and was a well established artist when he came to Watts in 1965 and started the Watts Writers Workshop. The unique characteristic that Budd possessed was that he was able to wear both caps. He was able to interact with the grass root artists, work with and empower community artists. He taught classes, he encouraged his influential friends to get involved. He brought paid work from Hollywood to the artists of the community
The Watts Writers Workshop lasted seven years before it was destroyed. Somehow through a paid informant it got on the cointelpro destruction list and was burned to the ground by the informant. Before it was destroyed it empowered many great artists who came through its doors, artists like Ojenke, Johnny Scott, Jimmie Sherman, Quincy Troupe, Yaphet Coto, Ted Lang, Birdell Moore, Sunora Mckeller, Nola Satcher, Watts Prophets, Odie Hawkins, Eric Priestly and many others too numerous to mention.
Creative minds are our most valuable community asset...Most of the time the community artistis the first teacher that a young creative mind comes in contact with. In the ghetto it is sometimethe first place that a young artist will get a compliment or encouragement to continue to create.
The community artist is especially important in an impoverished community where artists are not encouraged to develop a so-called "precarious career" like being an artist. A community artist must protect the history, culture and traditions of a community. He must take seriously the young and old creative minds that are in his care, not just the ones who are his friends. He must protect the cultural integrity of the community. He must give completely what he has learned as an artist to the young developing artists under his care. If he is a writer he must teach the total picture when it comes to writing, meaning from the academic to the business life of an artist. He must be professional, disciplined and skilled in his craft!
As we move closer to the new millennium times are critical, the world is changing rapidly. This is one of the many reasons I wrote this article. The conditions I described that started many years ago, continue to exist unchecked.
In early July 1998 the Concerned Artists Action Group interviewed a young composer who had been given a three year residency in Watts. In that interview he stated, and I quote him, "I don't know anything about jazz!"
Uninformed artists who don't know or care about our traditions are still being imported into Watts. The community artists is still ignored by outside funding groups.We still have no place to gather and create. And our children continue to fall deeper into poverty, without adequate guidance and encouragement to create something new! If the conditions I have described are happening in Watts, they most likely are happening in ghettos across America.
The demographic of Watts has changed, it is a multicultural, multiethnic community that deserves a chance to create new and innovative ways to solve the many problems that plague poor communities.
C. Bernard Jackson said, "Art may be the only tool left to save the world from self-destruction." Without fine arts there are no fine minds. Politics has its chance to change negative conditions, education has its chance, and the community artists must be allowed their chance to help in the creation of new creative communities across America. They are our greatest natural resource, the guardian of young and old creative minds, and the cultivating farmers of new ideas.
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