Oral Histories

Interview of John W. Outterbridge

African American artist and community-activist. First director of the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles.
African-American Artists of Los Angeles: John W. Outterbridge
African American Artists of Los Angeles
African American History
Biographical Note:
African American artist and community-activist. First director of the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles.
Smith, Richard Candida
Outterbridge, John W.
Persons Present:
Outterbridge and Smith; John Eric Priestley in November 20, 1989 session.
Place Conducted:
Tapes I-X: Watts Towers Arts Center, Los Angeles; Tapes XI-XVIII: Outterbridge's home in Pasadena, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Richard Candida Smith, Principal Editor, Oral History Program, UCLA. B.A., Theater Arts, Ph.D., History, UCLA.Prior to beginning the interview, Smith was already familiar with Outterbridge's work. Smith prepared for the interview by examining publications and exhibition catalogs on African-American art, by reviewing slides of Outterbridge's work, and by discussing the interviewee's career with curators from the Palos Verdes Arts Center and the California Afro-American Museum and with former associates at the Pasadena Art Museum. John Eric Priestley and Rochelle Nicholas from the Watts Towers Arts Center were particularly helpful in suggesting areas for discussion.
Processing of Interview:
Steven J. Novak, editor, edited the interview. He checked the verbatim transcript of the interview against the original tape recordings, edited for punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling, and verified proper names. Words and phrases inserted by the editor have been bracketed.The edited transcript was sent to Outterbridge for review in January 1992. Outterbridge did not return the transcript. As a result, the transcript was completed without interviewee corrections or additions. Alex Cline, editor, prepared the table of contents and biographical summary. The interviewer prepared the interview history. Lisa Magee, editorial assistant, compiled the index.
19.75 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The interviews in the series African American Artists of Los Angeles document significant African American Artists and others in the Los Angeles metropolitan area who have worked to expand exhibition opportunities and public support for African American visual culture. The series was made possible in part by support from the UCLA Center for African American Studies, Institute of American Cultures.
Childhood in Greenville, North Carolina--Father, John Ivery Outterbridge--First art teacher, Madge B. Allen--Relatives and colorful characters in his childhood.
Racial mixture growing up--Hollowell's drugstore-Segregation--Impact of black veterans returning from World War II--Evidence of African heritage in Greenville--Objects Outterbridge remembers from his childhood--More friends and relatives--Work and college plans.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University--Artistic talent as a youngster--Working to provide finances for college--Volunteers for the military--Army training--Being stationed in Germany--Painting in the army.
Racial relations in the military--Feelings about war--Experiences in Germany--Aspirations to study art in Paris--Early hobbies and interests--Decision to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago.
Brothers and sisters--More on family and relatives--Hometown culture, artists, and craftspeople--More on parents--Personal view of art.
The America Outterbridge grew up knowing versus the America he encountered in the military--The decision not to stay in North Carolina--The American Academy of Art in Chicago--Exposure to black artists--A South Side artist's collective--Archibald Motley, Jr.--Religion and art.
Racism prevents Outterbridge from selling through galleries--Early work--Exploring different media--Carl Gray--Relationship with North Side artists--The beat scene--Singing jazz with Opus de Four--Landlady, Mrs. Harkness.
The death of Mrs. Harkness and the unearthing of her riches--Meets wife, Beverly McKissick Outterbridge--Racial issues in Chicago in the late fifties--Race and religion.
Awareness of black artists in Chicago--The decision to move to Los Angeles--Early impressions of Los Angeles--Curtis Tann--Working for lamp designer Tony Hill--Bobby Gilmore--Melvin Edwards--Early, informal exhibitions--Lack of interest in commercial art--Working for Artcraft.
Organizing a walkout at Artcraft--Copying a painting on a bet--Begins doing more sculpture.
More on artists in Chicago--Using new materials--Working with metal--Pieces stolen from a gallery--Note for a Bootblack--Song for My Father--Robert Ames and Brock King.
More about Artcraft and the Artisans Guild--The Ragman series--Pig Painted Blue and other pieces using fabric--Use of the cross as a symbol--Mood Ghetto--Reasons for evolving from painting on canvas to three-dimensional, mixed-media works--Drawing classes at Art Center School of Design--William Pajaud and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company art collection.
Noah Purifoy and other Los Angeles artists--Dialogue with artists during the sixties--David Mann--Art and the socio-political climate of the sixties--Confronts art critic William Wilson--One-man show at Brockman Gallery--O Speak, Speak created for Jim Woods's "Ceremony of the Land."
The destruction of 0 Speak, Speak--John Riddle and the Black Arts Council--Balancing part-time employment and work as an artist--Brockman Gallery and Gallery 32--Samella S. Lewis--Charles E. White--Cecil Fergerson and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--E. J. Montgomery.
Daughter, Tami Lynn Outterbridge--Wife, Beverly McKissick Outterbridge, and divorce--Melvin and Greg Edwards--History and importance of the Brockman Gallery--Stanley Wilson--Claude Booker--Art West Associated--Speaking as a panelist at San Jose State University.
Jirayr Zorthian--Vertis Hayes--Influence of childhood images on Outterbridge's art--Interaction with artists from other circles in Los Angeles--Asian-American artists and musicians.
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park--The Communicative Arts Academy's interaction with the Museum of Cultural History at UCLA--Receiving grants at the Communicative Arts Academy--Black Los Angeles--Area artists'attempts to be recognized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--Black artists' struggles elsewhere in the country--The Pasadena Art Museum.
More on the struggle with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--Black artists who were not recognized--Coverage of black artists' work by Los Angeles newspapers--European interest in African-American art.
The Watts rebellion--Los Angeles-area black artists' work in the aftermath of the rebellion--Discovers the Pasadena-Altadena area--Changes in Outterbridge's art during the sixties and seventies--Early involvement in the Watts Summer Festival of Art--Development of African consciousness while in Chicago--Study of African-American history--Teaching at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
More on teaching--Dissolution of programs in the black community--Converting buildings in Compton into centers for the Communicative Arts Academy.
Artists nurtured at the academy--Revenue from the Southern California Motorcycle Association--Ceramic mural project with John Riddle--Losing Compton Civic Center commission with Harold L. Williams--More on artists the academy produced--Building a house within the academy building to serve as a coffeehouse--Strange, inexplicable occurrences at the academy.
The idea for a museum on wheels--More about 0 Speak, Speak--Offer to direct the Watts Towers Arts Center.
The challenge of dealing with factions and bureaucracy as director of the Watts Towers Arts Center--Incompetence in the restoration process of the towers--Opposition to Outterbridge's directorship--Instigating the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Music and Arts Festival--The Watts Towers Community and Conservation Trust and problems with the city of Los Angeles.
Early encounters with the Watts Towers Arts Center--Curtis Tann--Enlargement of the arts center space in 1970--Difference between communities of Watts and Compton--Los Angeles Municipal Arts Department involvement in the art center--Further development of the arts center site--Demise of cultural organizations in Watts--Utilizing Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds.
Trying to operate the arts center on a minimal budget--Joan Kleinhauer--Receiving a California Arts Council grant--Impact of security issues on classes at the arts center--The arts center staff--Accommodating visitors to the arts center--Involvement with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)--Cultural bias in the NEA-Difficulty of working for the NEA Expansion Arts Program.
How experience with artists' activist collectives informed position with the Expansion Arts Program--More on the Communicative Arts Academy--NEA grants provide some financial support for the academy--More about the academy's workshops and programs.
More on activities and participants at the academy--The California Arts Council--Controversy over politicization of the NEA--Freedom of expression, the controversial portrait of Chicago mayor Harold Washington, and rethinking the teaching of American history.
The Captive Image series--California Crosswalk--Art as a process--The studio experience--Ideas behind the Aesthetics of Urban Blight series--Cultural heritage, religion, and life and death.
More about blight--Selection of materials for pieces--Personal meaning behind the use of rags--Uncle Buddy and Lonnie Barnhill--Madge B. Allen and Aunt Clemmie--Cerebral high art versus vernacular art--Mr. Black's shoe shop--A typical working day.
More on the working day--Outterbridge's studio arrangement with BMS Metals--Boards and panels Outterbridge has sat on.
Safety of the neighborhood surrounding the Watts Towers Arts Center--Serves as adviser to the Getty Center for Education in the Arts--The formal, Eurocentric approach of the Getty program.
Perception of other artists'work--Noah Purifoy--African-American artists and the mainstream art world--The necessity of sharing art.