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Mary Thomas on Watts artist Noah Purifoy's "Little Gems" sculptures

How artists participate in the remaking of urban space

Mary Thomas, PhD candidate in History of Art and Visual Culture, describes the work of artist Noah Purifoy who, after the Watts uprising in 1965, collected parts of melted neon signs and turned them into sculptures.  

Mary’s dissertation, titled “Enacted Sites: Art and the Visualization of Spatial Justice in Los Angeles, 1966-2014,” examines four projects in which artists directly engage urban landscape using sculptures from scavenged materials, installation art in abandoned homes, billboards, and graffiti. 

She writes “what links these projects together is how artists working in South Los Angeles have historically utilized improvisation as an aesthetic strategy for responding to urban planning policies which displaced and disenfranchised low-income and ethnic minority communities. Improvisation as a visual strategy can take many forms: the creation of work from easily accessible materials, documentation of a community’s transformation of urban infrastructure (such as sidewalks) into social spaces, and the spontaneous production of artwork. Ultimately, improvisation functions as a way for these artists to enlarge the strategies communities have used to claim urban space in light of ongoing histories of erasure.”