Profile: Noah Purifoy (1917-2004)

Noah S. Purifoy was an African-American visual artist and sculptor, co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, and creator of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. He lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California. 

Purifoy was the first African American to enroll in Chouinard Art Institute as a full-time student and earned his BFA in 1956, just before his fortieth birthday. He is best known for his assemblage sculpture, including a body of work made from charred debris and wreckage collected after the Watts Riots of August 1965.

Early life and education

Purifoy was born in 1917 in Snow Hill, Alabama as one of thirteen siblings. Noah lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California, where he died in 2004. During World War II, he served with the United States Navy as a Seabee, and as a veteran he was buried at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemeteryin Rittman, Ohio.

Purifoy received an undergraduate degree from Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) in 1943 and a graduate degree in social services administration from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in 1948. Following graduation Noah took a position as a social worker in Cleveland and in 1950 he moved to Los Angeles taking a job at the County Hospital. In 1953, Purifoy enrolled to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Purifoy was the first African American to enroll there as a full-time student and earned his BFA in 1956, just before his fortieth birthday.

66 Signs of Neon

In the months after the Watts Riots rebellion of August 1965, Purifoy and artist Judson Powell organized the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon, composed of roughly 50 works of art made from salvaged materials as a way to “interpret the August event.” The exhibition premiered at Markham Junior High School (April 3–9, 1966) with work by six artists and later traveled to nine state universities in California, eventually traveling to other venues throughout the United States. For 20 years following the rebellion, Purifoy dedicated himself to the found object, and to using art as a tool for social change.

He was cofounder of the  Watts Towers Art Center, adjacent to Simon Rodia’s landmark Watts Towers in Watts, Los Angeles, California.

Purifoy was on the California Arts Council from the late 1970s through late 1980s, initiating programs such as Artists in Social Institutions, bringing art into the state prison system. He then moved to the southern Mojave Desert to create artworks.

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