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Advocate Above All: Watts Towers Art Center's Rosie Lee Hooks 

Learn more about The Watts Towers Arts Center. Watch this "Artbound" episode.

A background in theater, arts and crafts and early childhood education has made Rosie Lee Hooks a natural fit for the Watts Towers Arts Center (WTAC). Since 2002, she’s served as director of the center situated next to the Watts Towers. She is the first and only woman thus far to fill the role. As director for the center, she fosters relationships between professional artists and students, encourages youth involvement in gardening and tile making and explores the Italian heritage of the Watts Towers, created by an Italian immigrant to the U.S. But above all, Hooks and her colleagues say she is an advocate for Watts, a community that has made strides since the 1965 civil unrest but remains a heavily disenfranchised and impoverished part of Los Angeles.   

“When I got there, there were a lot of challenges in the community because Watts doesn't get its fair share,” said Hooks, an Alabama native who once belonged to the African American performance ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock and served as coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution’s African diaspora program. “It seems to have to fight for everything [it gets],” she said of Watts. “I learned that very early.”

Over the past 18 years, however, Hooks has strengthened WTAC’s relationship with the greater community, organizing the annual Day of the Drum and the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival. Hooks also arranges art exhibits in the WTAC gallery, which has offered art workshops to generations of youth since its inception in 1961. One such young person was the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who met with Hooks shortly before his 2019 murder in South Los Angeles at the age of 33. Born Ermias Asghedom, Hussle took classes at WTAC as a child and wanted to revisit it as a successful adult, Hooks recalled. He is now featured on one of the commemorative bookmarks the WTAC has created to honor local artists.

Rosie Lee Hooks | Courtesy of Watts Towers Arts Center
Rosie Lee Hooks | Courtesy of Watts Towers Arts Center

“He was a wonderful young man, very respectful,” Hooks said of Hussle. “I was privileged to have had that time with Nipsey a month or so before his death. He came because the center was the first place he learned music. He learned how to make his first electronic beats when he came here to take classes.”

As WTAC director, Hooks inspires members of the public to become staunch advocates for the center. Last year, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition asking the mayor’s office to increase funding to WTAC to allow it to expand its staff and adequately compensate personnel. The WTAC’s biggest champions have included artists such as John Outterbridge (who served as WTAC director from 1975 to 1992), Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy, as well as musicians Patrice Rushen and Michael Abels, who composed the music for the hit films “Get Out” and “Us.”

“It’s phenomenal — the artists, mentors and teachers we have are the crème de la crème,” Hooks said. “All of these phenomenal people are associated with us. We can always call on them for guidance and direction. We want to have artists available to teach children that, ‘If I can stick with it, you can, too.’”

A person making a collage artwork  | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" ab s11
A person making a collage artwork | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center"

Around 1992, when Hooks briefly served as WTAC’s interim director, she said then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley heavily supported music education, which gave the WTAC the opportunity to team up with the California African American Museum on a jazz mentorship program that saw musicians visit area schools to perform. Since many of the students had never been to a concert before, the mentorship program marked their first time hearing live music, Hooks said.

Not only has meeting professional artists inspired WTAC youth, so has the story of Simon Rodia. Hooks stresses to students how it took Rodia from 1921 to 1954 to complete the series of architectural structures known as the Watts Towers. His legacy teaches them that success doesn’t always come quickly or easily. The artist, never formally trained, was an octogenarian when he completed the towers and achieved widespread recognition for the structure now deemed the nation’s best-known work of folk art.

Throughout her years as WTAC director, Hooks has made a point to familiarize the community with Rodia’s life story and the Italian influences, such as the use of tiles, found in the Watts Towers. She has formed relationships with the head of the Italian studies department at the University of California Los Angeles as well as with officials at the Italian Cultural Institute, the Italian Consulate General and the Italian ambassador in Washington, D.C. She has also traveled to Italy to view firsthand the artistic influences at work in Rodia’s sculptures. 

“The international partnerships really reinforce what we’re doing,” she said of exposing WTAC students and visitors to Rodia’s Italian background.

A student making art at Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" ab s11
A student making art at Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center"

The center’s partnerships with cultural institutions and a variety of artists would seemingly make it easy to get throngs of students to sign up for classes, but that hasn’t always been the case, Hooks said of her early years there. Watts was once so gang-ridden that families hesitated to let their children explore the community and its offerings. To increase attendance, Hooks has attracted students by offering them a wide range of hands-on activities to participate in. In addition to classes in visual art and music production, Hooks has urged students to tend to the gardens at the center “to teach them that fruits and vegetables don’t come from the grocery store; they came from the ground,” she said. 

Students plant zucchini in the garden, gaze into the WTAC turtle pond and create public art. Thanks to these experiences, Hooks said, quite a few students return to the center in adulthood, just as Nipsey Hussle did. Take Rogelio Acevedo and Erick Rivera: both are former students who now work at WTAC.

The garden at Watts Towers Arts Center  | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" ab s11
The garden at Watts Towers Arts Center | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center"

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Acevedo took his first art class at the center roughly around the time the 1992 civil unrest, which left Los Angeles on edge. For Acevedo, then 14, the gang truce that followed the uprising finally made him feel safe enough to explore his community and discover what WTAC had to offer. 

“We knew the towers,” he said of his family. “I could see the towers from my house, and I knew there was art activity there, and I enjoyed art as a kid.”

Acevedo said that his family, originally from Mexico, first moved to Watts in the 1910s and witnessed Rodia slowly build the towers. Taking classes at WTAC allowed Acevedo to meaningfully connect with the art history in his community. After taking an animation course, he went on to study photography and drawing. He continued to study art in college and worked for museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Getty, but he said he always wanted to share his experiences in the art world with the Watts community. He received that opportunity after landing a job as an art educator at WTAC, where he has admired Hooks’ work and advocacy.

“I think she has a real understanding of art and community art in all of its different facets,” he said. “She understands and is sensitive to the needs of the community. She’s also sensitive to the artists’ needs. She’s able to navigate different circles and somehow make it all work.”

Erick Rivera, 27, said that Hooks has seen him grow up, considering that he took his first art class at the center 15 years ago. He struggled to excel in school, but at WTAC he found a place where he belonged, he said.

“I wasn’t really good at anything else but drawing,” he said. “I remember drawing cartoons, and people recommended I take the animation class at the center. I loved it. It felt like a little refuge of like-minded people, and everyone was so talented in their level of craftsmanship.”  

The experience made Rivera feel that there was value in being an artist, he said. He’s now a WTAC instructor, a role that also requires him to provide tours of the Watts Towers, lead art activities and give lessons in art history. 

Like Acevedo, Rivera said that he appreciates Hooks’ leadership at WTAC, noting how she’s produced festivals on limited budgets while having to program the center’s everyday activities. Before becoming WTAC director, Hooks organized festivals and ran children’s theater productions as program coordinator for the city of Los Angeles’ cultural affairs division. 

“It takes a lot of planning and a lot of hard work to put all these different resources together,” Rivera said of Hooks. “She’s a strong woman who really fights for Watts, and I've seen Watts fight for her whenever she’s been in a tough situation. We have a lot of limitations, but she manages to pull it off — putting on festivals and gallery shows and working with artists.” 

When Hooks served as interim director of WTAC in the early 1990s, she wasn’t very familiar with the community or with Los Angeles as whole, given that she’d spent her childhood and early adult years in the other half of the country. That she returned a decade later to become the center’s first woman director doesn’t entirely surprise her, though.

“Watts has been called the hub of the universe,” she said. “There is some energy in Watts, a vortex. We're kind of a nucleus for a lot of creativity. I don’t know what happens here, but once you come in, you’re going to come back. You’re not going to just walk away.”

Top Image: Watts Towers Arts Center exterior | Still from "Watts Towers Arts Center" 

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