Born: February 4, 1943, Liberty City, Miami, FL
Died: April 21, 2010 Overtown, Miami, FL
In the award winning, feature-length documentary, Purvis of Overtown, famed actress and collector, Jane Fonda, describes her reaction to Purvis Young’s art in these words: “All I knew was that there’s something really powerful and profound going on here. But the first thing that struck me was the hopefulness of the work.”
In 2006, when the movie was released, hopefulness was in short supply for Purvis Young. Ironically, just as international fame was coming his way, he was on the losing end of ten-year battle with diabetes. The artist was surviving thanks to dialysis sessions three times a week. Despite the fatigue induced by the treatments, he kept working. A kidney transplant gave him a reprieve and he painted unceasingly until his death in 2010.
“ Everyday, “ Young confided to collector Daniel Aubry, “ I prays to be great….” “I thought he’d be painting into his eighties and nineties like Picasso and Matisse,” says Aubry, “ just getting better all the time.”
Young’s greatness is increasingly acknowledged by a once skeptical art world. In November, 2006, he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Boca Raton Museum. In January, 2007, he was the Director’s Choice artist of Art Miami and a monumental archway of his work greeted visitors to the Miami Convention center. A steady stream of articles, publications, and solo exhibitions followed, including recent shows at the Merton D. Simpson Gallery in New York (2014), the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (2015), and the Rubell Collection’s Thirty Americans show in Miami (2015).
And the attention continues to grow. In a November, 2015 article in the New York Times, Randy Kennedy notes “ After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.”
Purvis lived his entire life in Overtown, Miami’s black ghetto. For over thirty-five years, he painted in a series of abandoned, rat-infested warehouses. Previously a prosperous black community, Overtown was once billed as the “Harlem of the South”. In the 1960s, it was largely destroyed by the building of Highway I-95 and now has one of the highest drug-use and crime rates in Florida. Adjoining the compound where Young lives with his common law wife is an alley called “ Bucket of Blood“ with the highest incidence of murder in the greater Miami area. Interestingly, nobody bothered Purvis, the local icon. Everyone respectfully called him “Mr. Young“. In a community virtually without hope, he was the singular example of someone who “broke out“.
Even though Purvis Young’s work is in over sixty museums, including the Smithsonian and the Corcoran, and innumerable collections such as the Rubell Family Collection, Purvis never thought of leaving Overtown. “I paint what I sees…I paint the problems of the world.“ said Young and in public he wore dark glasses to “hide his tears” at the injustice and sadness he witnessed every day.
Because he could never afford canvas, Purvis painted on every surface available to him –- discarded plywood and cardboard, refrigerator doors, table tops, scraps of fabric and metal trays– mostly brought to him by scavengers in his neighborhood. He creatively “recycled” long before it was fashionable or profitable.
Though until recently Purvis was confined to a ghetto of another sort- that of “Outsider Art “ – his highly expressionistic work can best be described as “magical realism“. His paintings are populated with angels who watch over turbulent cityscapes, faces reminiscent of an imagined Zulu past, and symbols of freedom and escape – wild horses, trucks, and the flimsy craft of Haitian boat people plowing through shark-infested waters to journey to these shores.
“I look at the wildlife” says Young, referring to the National Geographic channel which he watches on T.V. while painting, “in alternation with the History channel”.
“I see the Monarch Butterfly go from here to Mexico and the wild geese go from here to South America. I look at stuff like that and I say that’s the way I want to be, you know. I want to be free.” Three years in prison will do that to a man, which is the time Purvis spent in jail for breaking and entering in his late teens. “When I was in my cell one night, “ Purvis remembers,” I woke up and the angels came to me and I told ‘em, you know, hey man
this is not my life – and they said they were gonna make a way for me, you know…”
That way was Art. If any man bears witness to the value of the Public Library system, it’s Purvis Young. “He’s like a kind of Rocky figure, “ says Barbara Young, Miami Art Reference Librarian, “ because he’s a person that’s had a lot of adversity in his life and he hasn’t had a lot of education or a lot of advantages, but he’s educated himself”.
It’s in the Overtown Library – which he would one day adorn with his own murals – that he discovered Rembrandt and Van Gogh, two of his heroes. Purvis’ early drawings gradually reveal his growing mastery. Old books that the library was discarding became his sketch pads. These rare examples of the artist’s thought process are now highly prized by Purvis Young’s growing legion of collectors.
Purvis Young’s appeal is universal. “People know he’s the real thing,“ says Miami collector Cristina Santeiro. “He’s painting from the heart…” is how Tony, an Overtown neighbor, puts it. “ He’s trying to show people that we need to make a change..”. Of his own work Purvis Young had this to say: “I want people to know that I wish there would be peace in the world, and I will paint the way I paint until there is, and then one day maybe I could just hang up my brush and not paint no more.”