The New York Times Style Magazine
In Compton, a School That Paved the Way for Generations of Black Artists
Between 1969 and 1975, the Communicative Arts Academy was a vital hub for a community largely excluded from Los Angeles's cultural institutions.
By Melissa Smith
June 1, 2021
In Compton, Calif., in the late 1960s and early ’70s, public school students sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” after the national anthem at the start of classes each day. It was a Black city. Following the Watts Rebellion — the uprisings that took place in August 1965 in the predominantly Black Watts neighborhood, just north of Compton in southern Los Angeles — white residents who hadn’t already left the area were desperate to get out. By the end of that decade, Compton’s population, which had previously been mostly white, was about 70 percent Black. “The difference between Compton in 1959 and in 1969 is almost like night and day,” says Robert Lee Johnson, a local historian. When the city elected Douglas Dollarhide, its first Black mayor, in 1969, he came into office with a majority Black school board and an entirely Black City Council. But keeping the city middle class was an uphill battle. The mass relocation of white-owned businesses led to sweeping job losses and soon Compton, which had formerly been “known for its housing and schools,” Johnson says, couldn’t afford to maintain either, let alone support the arts.
For many, Compton would not have been the first place to consider starting an art school. But in neighboring Watts, the artist Noah Purifoy, a former high school wood-shop teacher from Alabama with a master’s degree in social work, had done just that. In 1964, with his fellow artist Judson Powell and Sue Welsh, a local schoolteacher, he founded the Watts Towers Arts Center, a space in a small house on 107th Street, near the artist Simon Rodia’s famous mosaic monument, which functioned not only as a venue for free painting, drawing and dance classes but also as an important meeting place for Los Angeles’s Black artists, who were not welcomed by the city’s mainstream arts institutions at the time. Indeed, the center inspired many people who passed through it to experiment with what would later become known as social practice art, an approach to art making defined by its engagement with issues related to community. Among them were Powell himself, an accomplished musician from Philadelphia, whose artistic focus soon shifted toward using art to educate and revitalize communities, and John Outterbridge, who had arrived from Chicago in 1963 and quickly became immersed in the local Black art scene, eventually working with Powell and Purifoy at the Watts Towers. The son of a “junkster,” as he once affectionately described his father — a collector of everything from antiques to discarded toys — Outterbridge was intrigued by the idea of bringing life back to a neighborhood through its castoffs.
In the aftermath of the riots, Purifoy and Powell collected pieces of the resulting debris to use in their work, and together with a group of collaborators created an array of vivid assemblage pieces that incorporated charred wood, broken bottles and remnants of melted marquees. An exhibition of these sculptures, “66 Signs of Neon,” which was organized by Powell and Purifoy and opened at a Watts middle school as part of a local arts festival, was such a success that it traveled to a number of universities and galleries across the country between 1966 and 1971, and would go on to influence generations of artists. To keep the momentum of this movement going, Powell decided to start a second school. He chose Compton, he recalled last year, not long before his death this past February at age 87, “simply because it was available.” But the city also represented an opportunity, given that it was “absent of all arts,” he noted, to begin anew.
Powell began work on the project, which he called the Communicative Arts Academy, in 1969, and the following year the federal Office of Economic Opportunity started funding the school, with an $80,000 operating budget. The agency provided the money on the informal condition that the C.A.A. offer vocational skills, as the O.E.O. had with other programs in the area. But Powell had loftier goals. He asked Outterbridge to be his artistic director, knowing that he would need someone well connected if he were to create an “artist haven where Black artists could gather and establish some state of politics or power,” says Charles Dickson, who taught sculpture at the C.A.A. between 1971 and 1975. Los Angeles’s Black artists needed another, larger venue in which to express themselves, and so they built it. And it grew to be one of the few “viable spaces to have those conversations,” Dickson says, eventually attracting the attention of prominent artists like David Hammons and Samella Lewis, and influential gallerists such as Dale and Alonzo Davis of Brockman Gallery.
The academy’s first location was the Happening House, a white-shingled two-story home on East Indigo Street donated by the Salvation Army. With the help of students from Compton High School, Outterbridge renovated the residence as a space for workshops, and within months so many students had enrolled in classes that it became clear another building was needed. Powell arranged for the academy to expand into an abandoned warehouse that had, at one time, served as a skating rink.
Passers-by would stop and watch as Outterbridge fixed up the large, squat edifice on East Magnolia Street over a period of months. The building epitomized the something-out-of-nothing attitude Purifoy promoted in Watts and was not only a venue for art making but also a sort of assemblage work in itself: Outterbridge covered the windows and doors with colorful abstract sculptures made of geometrically shaped pieces of found wood and metal; he constructed a full-size house within the building — an installation he called “The Language of the Coffee House” — to serve as a cafe for locals; and with Cecil Fergerson and Claude Booker — the founders of the Black Arts Council, an organization established in 1968 to create opportunities for Black artists — he set up a gallery inside the former skating rink, providing much-needed exhibition space for his friends (who included, says Dickson, “almost all the Black artists in the professional world”). At the same time, the photographer Willie Ford Jr. assembled a darkroom using scrap materials from local businesses.
Known as the Arena, the building opened in 1971, offering classes ranging from dance and sculpture to sewing, pottery and drawing. The space was also versatile, able to transform into whatever the community needed, including at various times venues for a funeral, a fashion show and boxing. The artist Richard Wyatt Jr., 65, who grew up nearby, recalls walking into the building not long after it had opened, when he was around 12, and being awe-struck by the “large, colorful canvases hanging from the ceiling and the murals on the walls.” But more than that, he remembers how he instantly had a feeling “of being at home,” he says. “I was finally surrounded by a group of people who were as serious about art as I was.”
At the height of the school’s six-year run, it offered more than 70 different classes across a number of facilities — in addition to the main buildings, the academy grew to include a sculpture workshop and a 200-seat playhouse used by its drama and music departments — and hundreds of Compton residents cycled in and out. It became a place where kids could go after school, a safe haven of sorts, but it was open to older students, too. The syllabus was designed to elevate Black culture and teach practical and creative arts in a way that would instill in participants a sense of Black pride. Dancers dressed in African-inspired garments, and the visual art produced by teachers and students alike at the center — for example, “Attica” (circa 1971-75), a painting attributed to John Outterbridge that alluded to the 1971 rebellion led by Black inmates at a New York prison — often included sly references to Black radicalism. The academy also recruited a professional theater group, the Paul Robeson Players, to put on plays, such as Joseph Walker’s “The River Niger” (1972), and students from nearby schools joined the academy’s orchestra, led by the musician and conductor Troy Robinson. Performances catered to locals but also brought in celebrities — among them Muhammad Ali and the actor Ossie Davis — helping to spread word about the school.
Thanks to the academy, art also spilled out into the city, perhaps most prominently with the work of the local artist Elliott Pinkney, who became the C.A.A.’s — and by extension, Compton’s — unofficial muralist around 1970. Painted across local buildings, his colorful, layered tableaus helped advertise one of the academy’s talents and its sensibility as an institution intent on Black uplift. A few of his later works, some of which were made in collaboration with his son Arnold, remain: “Medicare 78” (1977), a tribute to health care workers in vibrant shades of cornflower blue and rust red, can still be seen on North Alameda Street near Rosecrans Avenue, and “Ethnic Simplicity” (1977), a portrait of the city’s multiculturalism, still stands about a mile north, though it has been partially painted over.
But running the academy with minimal funding and a small team was a demanding job. In 1990, while working on an oral history project at U.C.L.A. about contemporary Black artists in Los Angeles, the historian Richard Cándida Smith asked Outterbridge if he had time to pursue his own practice much while working at the school. “Well,” he responded, “that became the art.”
Not that that work was recognized by the rest of L.A.’s art world. In one of his interviews with Cándida Smith, Outterbridge recalled participating in a late 1960s TV forum about the state of the local Black art scene, in which another artist asked the white art critic William Wilson why he’d never visited Brockman Gallery, one of the few spaces exhibiting Black art in Los Angeles at the time. Wilson answered that he wasn’t very interested in reviewing group shows. “Just be honest,” responded Outterbridge, who knew that Wilson had, in fact, reviewed group shows in the past, “and say that you have not come to the gallery because you are uncomfortable in coming into the realm of what the gallery represents.” And Wilson wasn’t alone. Curators at major institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art also blatantly ignored Black artists. When Outterbridge took Wyatt under his wing in 1968, introducing him to his artist friends, many of their exhibitions were “staged in church halls, schools gyms and parks,” Wyatt recalls. For that reason, Black artists were deeply invested in establishing a new and experimental art institution in a place where, as Outterbridge told Neworld magazine in 1975, “a Black institution could exist.” Never before had they been able to define the terms of their artistry quite like this.
And many of the gains made were a direct result of Outterbridge’s efforts. Few people had “the political push that ’Bridge had,” Dickson says. Under his direction, the C.A.A. ushered into Compton “a burst of Black arts,” Johnson says — and soon, that energy began to extend outward. “Using the strategies employed at the C.A.A.,” says Wyatt, “we then start seeing these shows outside of the academy.” There was “Three Graphic Artists” in 1971, the first exhibition at LACMA featuring work by contemporary Black artists: Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington. And a year later, LACMA presented “A Panorama of Black Artists,” which included 51 Black artists, among them Outterbridge, Betye Saar, Dickson, Pinkney, Purifoy and Wyatt. In just a short span of time, the C.A.A. had helped prove that there is, indeed, power in numbers: By operating as a collective, its artists made it nearly impossible for institutions to ignore the movement that was taking hold there.
By the end of 1972, though, right after Nixon’s re-election, the O.E.O. discontinued its support of the academy. The C.A.A. survived for three more years, relying on a patchwork of donations and aid, before closing in 1975.
Nevertheless, Outterbridge, who died in November 2020 at 87, was able to use the C.A.A. as a blueprint for a community-based arts institution and become a “catalyst in keeping that energy going,” says Wyatt. “It just shifted from Compton to Watts.” Outterbridge spent the next 18 years as the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, working with influential leaders like Dickson and the photographer Willie Middlebrook, whom he’d brought with him from the C.A.A. And it was there — at the same institution that had first incubated the idea of bringing Black artists together through community-based projects — that Los Angeles’s Black Arts Movement truly took off.
Even so, the C.A.A. undoubtedly helped shape Black culture in Compton, a city that was, for a brief moment, at the forefront of Black empowerment in America. And this legacy has continued to inspire hope that the city will be again. The school laid the groundwork, for example, for the Compton-based artist and activist Rosalind McGary to found Sepia Collective in 2016, which launched the Compton Arts Project three years later. What started as “a beautification project that was community-centered,” she says, has since evolved, with the help of organizations like A Blade of Grass, a nonprofit that supports socially engaged art, into “a series of exhibitions, installations and activations that highlight Compton’s impact on world art and culture.” And there are a number of other organizations working today in Compton alongside McGary’s, helping to reframe the city’s history to include its engagement with the arts. One of them, the nonprofit Compton Art Walk, is even organizing a photography exhibition about the academy that will open later this year at Gallery 90220 in South Los Angeles. The C.A.A. “nurtured the artistic spirit that all these organizations benefit from,” says the Compton-based writer Jenise Miller, who grew up surrounded by Pinkney’s murals and has since spent time researching the school. “Art is in the DNA here.”