An Iranian Emigre Artist Erects a Tower, and His California Town Says, Watts This?

Maybe you can fight City Hall. Consider the case of Ali Roushan, a 37-year-old Iranian-born artist and metalworker in Costa Mesa, Calif. Last spring he erected a 30-foot prayer and meditation tower, complete with fountain and rose garden, on his business property at 1550 Superior Ave. The city council reluctantly approved the project. Then Roushan added an even more massive work, a symbolic pair of vermilion wings weighing three tons. He dedicated it to the U.S. hostages in his native Tehran, but that didn’t assuage the council which this time took him to court for building violations. “No lawyer can tell a jury what is in my heart,” Roushan declared, suggesting that it was a sculpture protected by freedom of expression—not a structure subject to local ordinances. “My work is art.” Finally last month Roushan was granted a six-month grace period. If he maintains his sculpture garden to the city’s satisfaction, he may be able to keep it.

The creation and the litigation took their toll, though. He injured his back constructing the tower, and then he split with his American-born wife, Mary. That forced him to sell his $158,000 house in nearby Newport Beach. He moved his gear to his metalworking office, Customs by Ali, and spent many nights in a sleeping bag under his sculptures. He says he once earned up to $20,000 a month but “with this hassle, I could not work. They killed the joy in my soul.”

The court’s interim decision has improved his outlook. Roushan, who came to the U.S. in 1963, says he will become a citizen if he is allowed to retain his sculptures permanently. He is already planning the next addition to the monument that his local supporters say would then rival Los Angeles’ Watts Towers. It will be an approximately 30-foot volcano-like structure symbolizing youth’s eruptive energy. Says the flamboyant Roushan: “I can’t build anything small anymore.”

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