Purvis Young was born February 4, 1943, in Miami. By the time of his death on April 20, 2010, also in Miami, he was considered not just an important self-taught African American artist but an important American artist, period.
Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at Smithsonian American Art Museum, compiled this biographical sketch:
Around 1971, Young began transforming an alley in his Miami neighborhood into a large-scale mural project. Goodbread Alley, as it was called, was by then, comprised of store fronts that had been condemned and boarded up by the city as part of rolling urban renewal project. It was in an area of Miami called Overtown, a neighborhood that has once been a thriving immigrant community but had since become a dangerous area plagued by poverty and crime.
During a stint in prison for robbery [in the early 1960s], Young had reflected on the direction of his life and become troubled by the plight of his community; he became very inspired by the African American activist murals in Detroit and Chicago. So, when he was released, he began making a mural of his own, knowing full well that the structures along the alley he was using as his canvas did not belong to him and would one day be demolished.
Between 1971 and 1974, Young focused on this mural. His subjects celebrated and historicized the neighborhood that he had spent his entire life in and although they charted struggle, they always contained an undercurrent of hope for a better future.
He became a local celebrity and the alley became a tourist attraction until its demise. At that point, some of the work was sold, some was scavenged, some went to dealers, and some was destroyed. And Young continued to paint in various studio settings for the next 3 1/2 decades, but the work made on site in Goodbread Alley is widely regarded as his most powerful; it is also the rarest.
In mid-1990s interviews posted on the Souls Grown Deep website, Young described his early urge to use his art, which blended painting and mixed-media collage often on found materials, to protest racial injustice and the Vietnam War: “My feeling was the world might be better if I put up my protests…” he said, “It might not, but it was just something I had to be doing. I make like I’m a warrior, like God sending an angel to stop war.”
As a young boy, an uncle taught him to draw, but he didn’t stick with it. When he did time for breaking and entering at Raiford State Penitentiary, he regained his interest in drawing and began reading art books.
“And when I got out, I taught myself how to paint,” he recalled in the Souls Grown Deep interviews. “I taught myself that each brush means something.”
Though he never received formal training, Young took close note of some of the greats of art history through reading. “I get me all the books. Different artists I liked. Rembrandt, he walk around, paint a lot of Christian pictures, you know? Gauguin. He all right.” Remington inspired him to paint soldiers.
It was a logical step from studying those art books to creating his own by gluing his drawings into books and magazines he recovered from Overtown’s streets.
Young developed his own vocabulary of recurring images. Locks spoke to the lifelong struggles of many poor people. Sharks symbolized barriers to the achievement of the American dream, especially for immigrants. Wild horses “running free” equaled freedom finally realized.
Purvis Young’s art is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, High Museum of Art, American Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art and more.
What got him into those esteemed institutions was that he never veered from his mission: “paint the truth.”
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