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ACLS Fellow Emma Silverman and Her Study of the Watts Towers

Monday, August 1, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate
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Emma Silverman is one of three AFS members to have recently been awarded a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Emma is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at UC Berkeley with an outside field specialization in folklore. She has received a Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art for her forthcoming dissertation “From Eyesore to Icon: Outsider Art, Racial Politics, and the Watts Towers.” Emma describes her project in more detail below:

Her dissertation is an academic study of the Watts Towers, a massive sculptural environment built over the course of thirty-four years by Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant with no formal training in art or architecture. Located in a backyard in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, Rodia’s environment underwent a remarkable transformation during the 1950s from eccentric hobby to internationally renowned monument. “From Eyesore to Icon” argues that the Watts Towers’ emergence as a public icon was intertwined with its crucial role in the formation of multiple overlapping art communities—Ferus Gallery artists, members of the Black Avant-Garde and authors of the emerging category of Outsider Art. Using the Watts Towers as a thread to connect seemingly disparate artists and visual discourses, the dissertation will paint a picture of the complexities involved when art’s insiders move out, and its outsiders move in.

More broadly, Emma’s research interests include the art of social movements, feminist and queer aesthetics, and the politics of folk and outsider art. Emma earned her BA from Wesleyan University in 2006, and graduated with an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012, where she worked to preserve Midwest folk art environments through a fellowship with the Kohler Foundation.

To learn about the other recent ACLS Fellowship winners in our field, go to

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