Profile: Purvis Young (1943-2010)

Purvis Young was an American artist from the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Young’s work, often a blend of collage and painting, utilizes found objects and the experience of African Americans in the south.

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Early life and work

Purvis Young was born in Liberty City, a neighborhood of Miami, Florida, on February 2, 1943. As a young boy, his uncle introduced him to drawing, but Young lost interest quickly. He never attended high school.

As a teenager, Young served three years (1961–64) in prison at North Florida’s Raiford State Penitentiary for breaking and entering. While in prison he would regain his interest in art and began drawing and studying art books. When released, he began to produce thousands of small drawings, which he kept in shopping carts and later glued into discarded books and magazines that he found on the streets. He proceeded to move into the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. Young became attracted to a vacant alley called Goodbread Alley, which was named after the Jamaican bakeries that once occupied the street; he started living there in 1971.

Mid-career

In the early 1970s, Young found inspiration in the mural movements of Chicago and Detroit, and decided to create a mural of inspiration Overtown. He had never painted before, but inspiration struck and he began to create paintings and nailing them to the boarded-up storefronts that formed the alley. He painted on wood he found on the streets and occasionally paintings would “disappear” from the wall, but Young didn’t mind. About two years after starting the mural, tourists started visiting the alley, mainly white tourists. Occasionally, Young sold paintings to visitors – tourists and collectors alike – right off the wall. The mural garnered media attention, including the attention of millionaire Bernard Davis, owner of the Miami Art Museum. Davis became a patron of Young, providing him with painting supplies as well. Davis died in 1973, leaving Young a local celebrity in Miami.

Late career and death

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he explored other inspirations by watching historical documentaries about war, the Great Depression, commerce, and Native American conflicts and struggles in the United States. In 1999 the Rubell family, notable art collectors from New York,  purchased the entire content of Young’s studio, a collection of almost 3,000 pieces. In 2008 the Rubells donated 108 works to Morehouse College. In January 2007, Purvis was selected as the Art Miami Fair’s Director’s Choice at the Miami Beach Convention Center and helped to establish a number of outdoor art fairs in South Florida that continue today.

With artistic success came monetary gain, and Young failed to maintain his estate. Before his death, he became involved in a legal battle with former manager Martin Siskind. Young sued Siskind for mismanagement of funds. In response, Siskind successfully petitioned for Young to be declared mentally incompetent, and Young’s affairs were placed in control of legal guardians. According to friends, Young was not incompetent and was left destitute by the procedures. Siskind stated that he and Young had settled the suit amicably and that Young retained ownership of 1,000 paintings and was financially stable.

Young suffered from diabetes, and toward the latter years of his life, he had other health problems, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2007. He died on April 20, 2010, in Miami, from cardiac arrest and pulmonary edema. He is survived by his partner Eddie Mae Lovest; his two sisters Betty Rodriguez and Shirley Byrd, brother Irvin Byrd, four stepdaughters, and 13 step-children.

In 2015, The Bass Museum of Art announced that it is donating almost 400 pieces of Young’s art to the permanent collection in the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. The foundation is located in Lyric Theater in Overtown.

 

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