Compton Armory Arts Center May 2010
Beautiful paintings full of color and culture hang on the walls of one particular room at the National Guard Armory Compton, but tension and worry shadow the brilliance of the artistic splendor.
Several years ago, the National Guard reorganized its units and moved its equipment and administrative offices out of the the four acre facility in Compton. Since then, the building has become the foundation for a slowly growing attempt to create an arts and science center for the local youth.
The new tenants consist of several nonprofit organizations as well a passionate artist and art curator. They have been striving to create a cultural hub out of the dilapidated facilities, but are now working under a cloud of concern. The state of California recently issued an eviction notice saying that they will be forced to evacuate by May 15.
Why they’re being kicked out
The armory is owned by the state and the current tenants do not have a legal lease. This poses many problems, said Deputy Attorney General Michael Witmer.
Because there is no legal lease, the tenants are not paying the necessary fees and rent to upkeep the armory. This burdens the state with the costs of utilities, maintenance, and security. A proper lease would profit California, a state presently drowning in a daunting deficit.
The military department in control of the armory is negotiating a long-term lease with the city of Compton. City officials representing the whole city population would make the decisions about the property’s use instead of the few citizens involved now.
“The organizations using the space seem to have formed a sort of community too and it would be nice if some provision could be made to continue supporting their work, but that has to be up to local authorities,” said Witmer.
Although Witmer stressed the positivity associated with the change, the transition that he ensures is happening smoothly seems to be rockier than expected. The tenants have already invested so much into their visionary goal and they are not willing to give up.
How the idea all started…
The vision came to light almost five decades ago, sparking from the fires and devastation of the Watts riots of August 1965. Two artists teaching at the Watts Tower Art Center, Judson Powell and Noah Purifoy, watched the mayhem unfold and went outside to collect still-smoldering debris promptly after the riots ended. With three tons of junk collected by September, the men had no idea what the dripping neon signs and contorted metals could be used for.
The Watts Art Center closed in March due to a lack of funding. It was at that time that Purifoy and Powell were inspired to turn the garbage into something meaningful. They molded and fashioned the materials into 66 pieces of artwork called the 66 signs.
Each piece drew from the horrors of the riots in Watts. Powell and Purifoy hoped to educate the community using the art. As their labors progressed, the artists realized the complete absence of art education in the community. The objective for the exhibit evolved.
“The ultimate purpose of this effort, as we conceived it then, 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 materialist world,” said Purifoy.
What can be seen in the future
Purifoy and Powell completed the exhibit many years ago, but the need for art education in bereft communities still thrives today. Judson Powell’s vision of art as a science of communication and expression still lives as well. He sees it taking shape at the National Guard Armory of Compton, or what he calls “The Compton Arts and Science Center.”
Powell found the buildings in disarray. One of his fellow workers, MC Robinson said that when the facilities were unoccupied the local youth threw what seemed to be outrageous parties; leaving panties, used condoms, and evidence of drug use behind.
“The kids are third generation gang bangers. Their parents didn’t know any better, so who is going to teach them? They know nothing else,” said Robinson, with a sense of sympathy rather than reproach.
Powell and a few others used their own money and physical labor to put in new windows and renovate the buildings. Today, the rooms glisten with artwork composed of recycled glass that Powell designs himself. The designs vary from abstract patterns to depictions of an intricate eagle soaring through the sky.
The glass artwork embodies the principles Powell hopes to teach the youth from the surrounding schools in Compton. Anyone can find items or materials, adapt them into a useable form, and recreate something more desirable and beautiful than before. “The earth is a place not where we look for what we can tear apart, but what we can put together,” said Powell.
This lesson is both literal and symbolic. Powell stressed that these children and adolescents have not reached within themselves and their pasts to discover their potential. He wants them to gather from what already exists and adapt the experience and wisdom to fit their own lives. The primary source from which they can draw is their culture.
“We must remember something, the only form of continuity we have in life comes from our culture,” said Powell.
The tenants have been modeling the armory into a place for education and growth. Jim Hawkins said, “This is an ideal place, like a neutral ground where we can teach…we can give the kids practical experience and an opportunity to learn.”
Hawkins is not as involved in the art exhibit, but he runs his Teen Intervention program and Sports Spectacular, two public benefit services, from the armory. Currently, the space houses signs called the “Wall of Shame,” which represent every person killed by violence in Compton and surrounding areas in the past year.
Hawkins began the wall with two boards and over the past year, the number has rocketed to 10. As often as possible, he takes the lengthening “Wall of Shame,” out of his armory work space to put it in the public eye. He brings it to a well-traveled area where the the community can see and conceptualize the danger that has out-lived those listed on the wall.
“It is time for us to stand up for the right of the American youth, who are killed on the streets every day,” said Hawkins pointing out the rapidly growing list of April deaths.
Hawkins has taken the initiative, but he complained that political leaders are in denial and local citizens do not say anything to make a change.
He plans to use the space in the armory to bring every organization together, creating a unified force and, therefore, stronger impact. Although because communication with the city of Compton being “pretty much null,” as Hawkins phrased it, the future of this plan is unforeseeable.
The curator, Bryan Brea, who works hand in hand with Powell, also accused the city of Compton of not being involved at all in the armory or the progress it has made. “When he got here this place was a dump…and the city hasn’t done a damn thing,” said Bryea.
Bryea and Powell have been close friends for over 30 years (ap style). Bryea has spent the past two years assembling the first section of the living exhibit that walk the local African American youth through their cultural history if it is completed.
Bryea accumulated rusted, authentic shackles worn by African slaves; bright-colored native ritual attire; elaborately carved ceremonial masks; and many other African artifacts to display in the exhibit. It is titled the “Musuem in Black.”
“There has been no one to make so much progress under such horrific conditions as black people in America,” said Bryea.
He explained that the historical African art in the museum is the foundation of culture that persists in Compton today. Powell and Bryea share similar beliefs. The city’s youth must look to the past in order to find themselves in the present.
The eviction notice still looms over their heads, so the tenants must search scour their resources and connections for help.
All three men- Powell, Hawkins, and Bryea- served the U. S. government in some way. They intend to stage a veteran stand down at the armory in attempt to gain governmental support.
Powell also plans to contact the Henry Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for additional assistance and funding.
“Once we get into the mode in trying to aid the community, we don’t just stop,” said Powell, before falling to his knees in stress and aggravation.