Before NWA, there was the CAA. Decades before young rap artists blasted a tough city image onto the world stage, a group of artists in Compton established the Communicative Arts Academy (CAA), a vital arts program in the era of the Black Arts Movement in Southern California in the 1960s and 70s. During the height of their operation from 1969 to 1975, the CAA invigorated Compton with art inspired by life and possibility in California’s first majority black city. As a community-based arts nonprofit and artist collective which included Judson Powell, John Outterbridge, Elliott Pinkney, Charles Dickson and Willie Ford, to name a few, they held Compton as canvas and muse, renovated buildings across the city, and transformed vernacular, underutilized structures into venues for and objects of art. The CAA made art in a city destined to capture the world’s imagination.
By the time the CAA started in 1969, Compton represented the West’s premier black city. Black residents had overcome racist housing covenants and a militant white campaign to “keep the Negroes north of 130th Street.” Their efforts made Compton the first majority black and majority black-run city west of the Mississippi River. The city elected its first black city councilman, Douglas Dollarhide, who then became the first black mayor of a major California city in 1969. His term was followed by Doris Davis, the first black female mayor of a major city in the United States (1973). The city brimmed with local talent — artists and artisans who, like other black artists across the country, reflected the movement for civil rights and racial equity in individual and community-based art practices. Judson Powell, who worked with artist Noah Purifoy at the Watts Towers Arts Center, and then as an administrator at the Compton-Willowbrook Enterprise Community Action Agency, founded the CAA and brought in artist John Outterbridge as its Director. The CAA was the soul of art in the up-and-coming black suburb and “contributed enormously to the rich tapestry of black arts in Southern California,” wrote author Paul Von Blum in “Before and After Watts: Black Art in Los Angeles.”
While Compton avoided major physical damage from the neighboring 1965 Watts Uprising, CAA artists participated in the artist-led reimagining and rebuilding efforts that followed and applied them in Compton. Outterbridge and Powell experimented with assemblage art, made possible by the discarded materials and detritus from the Uprising. They treated vacant buildings and white walls as “found” objects to render into art. Applying the assemblage art concept of reusing and repurposing to the built environment, they implemented an informal adaptive reuse project, best exemplified by The Arena.
The Arena was a long-vacant skating rink located near Willowbrook Avenue and Palmer Street — currently, the location of a shopping plaza. Outterbridge and Powell transformed this large space into multi-purpose studios, workshops and a performing arts space. It was called “a living sculpture.” According to Cynthia Bayete’s article in Neworld magazine published in the spring of 1975, CAA artists hung “tie-dyed parachutes…from the rafters …resembl[ing] clouds… Walls 24, 32 and 48 feet high [were painted] with murals that depict the shades of black life… Murals and collages cover[ed] its floors and walls. The front of the building [was] a mass of sculptured doors and colorful murals.” Outterbridge covered the windows and doors with decorative assemblage panels: vibrant, futuristic spirals reminiscent of the Watts Towers made of iron, wood and other found materials; bright wall paint and murals made the exterior hard material appear soft and eye-appealing. The idea of assemblage art on the building façade served a functional purpose. Outterbridge explained, “[w]e could not get plate-glass insurance, because of the neighborhood we were in; so over the plywood went sculptured panels made from discarded metal and wood collected from the streets and empty lots around the building. We created ‘something from nothing.’” Inside, Outterbridge built a small coffeehouse. CAA photographer Willie Ford, Jr. built a darkroom with discarded industrial materials he found around the city and ran a cinema workshop that had about 45 students at one point. They even installed dance and recording studios. The Black Arts Council — co-founded by Cecil Ferguson and other black LACMA employees to change the museum’s treatment of black artists and raise artist visibility — helped design and build a gallery space in the Arena and “featured an African art exhibit composed of objects lent by UCLA,” as author Daniel Widener wrote, making it the first fine art gallery in Compton.
By 1973, the CAA operated five workshop and performance sites, plus an office on Compton Boulevard. Outterbridge explained, “[i]f the facility is around us, somehow we make use of it.” At the sculptural workshop, which also housed a day care at one point, they layered more multi-dimensional, circular-patterned assemblage art on the building’s exterior, in addition to the murals Elliott Pinkney painted on two sides of the building. Sculptor Charles Dickson conducted workshops, teaching community members and families “[to] work in ultracal (a gypsum cement for molding), wood, leather, metal,” according to Outterbridge. He also added that the academy’s theater group, the Paul Robeson Players, led by actor Robert Browning, staged plays inside the Arena, in local parks and at the Communicative Playhouse, which seated about 200 people.
Powell recruited local youth to help turn a two-story house that was donated by the Salvation Army into a multi-room educational space called the Happening House. While they did not enhance the exterior as much as the other venues, they plastered the interior with paintings, prints and words of affirmation. Happening House opened “twelve hours a day [from noon to midnight], five days a week [with] some workshops… on weekends,” according to Bayete’s article. As word and work of the CAA spread, so did the number of artists who came to contribute and create in the community the CAA fostered. They offered a variety of workshops for youth and adults and served as many as 200 youth. The location helped: it was a residential area, within walking distance to local schools like Compton High. Prominent Los Angeles photographer Willie Middlebrook studied under CAA artists. The artists’ individual and collective practice and studios cultivated young artists and provided an unmatched scale and accessibility of art to the community.
Then, there were the murals. CAA muralist, printmaker and poet Elliott Pinkney saw potential in bare or graffiti-tagged walls. He enlivened the city, as well as the interior and exterior walls of CAA buildings, with monumental murals that reflected afro-futuristic images or portraits of workers, children, civil rights leaders and healers with outstretched arms. For years, the entire city became his studio; he painted eight murals across Compton from 1977 to ‘78 alone. Pinkney’s murals created an inspiring backdrop of everyday life in a city battling to achieve what he wrote in a poem: “walls that cry out/ with their innermost feelings/ of unborn and unrealized dreams.”
Unable to secure dependable sources of public or private funding, and as the new Nixon administration impounded funding for programs like it, the Compton Communicative Arts Academy closed by 1975. The gallery of buildings that bustled with the arts succumbed to redevelopment. The Happening House and Communicative Playhouse are now apartment buildings. A supermarket and shopping plaza appear where The Arena once stood. The Compton-Willowbrook Agency’s Multi-Purpose Center, which held CAA classes, retains its unique structure but is a personal residence now. Many CAA artists moved and went on to become prolific in their respective art forms. Charles Dickson and Elliott Pinkney maintained studios in Compton; among their numerous public artworks across L.A., Dickson’s “Symbols of Unity-The Idea of Freedom” sculpture, located in Watts’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Shopping Center and Pinkney’s “Mafundi” mural are both Watts landmarks.
Pinkney’s murals proved the most enduring of the CAA’s art in the city, though they are disappearing. The “New Worlds” mural is barely visible beneath the underpass Metro built over it and only a portion of “Slaying of the Dragon” remains. “Ethnic Simplicity” is mostly hidden beneath graffiti. “Medicare 78” remains the most intact, behind a fence that provides protection from its erasure. Perhaps the city and the newly-established Compton 125 Historical Society can help restore Pinkney’s murals and other vestiges of CAA’s artistic movement, like the city of L.A. has done with Pinkney’s “Mafundi” mural and a mural of prominent black figures across from the Dunbar Hotel. Because of Pinkney’s stature as an artist and his extensive work in and around Compton, the art form prevails, despite restrictions from the city.
The Compton Communicative Arts Academy was the first group of artists to activate Compton as a critical base for art. Though the organization doesn’t exist anymore, their legacy continues through an abundance of community-based artists who consciously utilize art to represent what sets the city apart. The recent “Compton” mural painted by local artists Anthony Pittman and Mel Depaz evokes Pinkney’s signature of reflecting the community’s culture and pride (Pittman is following in Pinkney’s footsteps, having painted murals in Compton and Watts). At the new Dollarhide Community Center located behind The Arena’s former location, poets and performing artists gather at the monthly Compton Open Mic Night hosted by JayBee. Several artists plan to promote CAA history in the community: workshops and an artist talk with Charles Dickson will accompany a small display of Willie Ford, Jr.’s photos at Patria Coffee Shop in February* (Cal State L.A.’s Special Collections Library holds Ford’s extensive archive of CAA photos and ephemera); later this year, SEPIA Collective will hold an art exhibition that includes contemporary artists who were mentored by CAA artists. As Compton looks forward and eschews its past beneath the banner of a “new” city, it could look toward the Communicative Arts Academy as a history to reuse, a past worth remembering.
Special thanks to Mrs. Arvis Ford and Cal State L.A. Special Collections for permission to reprint materials from the Willie Ford, Jr. Compton Communicative Arts Academy collection.
*Disclosure: The author of this article is coordinating this activity.”
Learn more about each of the CAA sites below.
The Arena was a former skating rink that the CAA transformed into “a living sculpture” and activity center that housed multi-purpose art studios, workshops, performing arts spaces, and a coffee house. A supermarket and shopping plaza stands in its former location.
The Happening House was a two-story house turned into a multi-room, educational space, where as many as 200 youth attended arts workshops. An apartment building stands in its former location.
Sculpture Unlimited offered sculpture workshops, as well as child care services, to community members. It is now home to the Charles Dickson Studios.
A local theater group, the Paul Robeson Players, staged plays at the Communicative Playhouse, which seated about 200 people. An apartment building stands in its former location.
Compton-Willowbrook Enterprise Community Action Agency/ Compton Multi-Purpose Center
The Compton-Willowbrook Enterprise Community Action Agency served as a sponsoring agency to the academy, with art and film classes offered at the Multi-Purpose Center on Alondra Blvd. The building is now a personal residence.