Purvis Young

"A little girl quoted this to me the other day. They were discussing me in her art class and they said I was one of the great painters in America."

As Purvis Young opens from the inside the padlocked metal door, he is already talking about an historian who claimed that Crazy Horse was white and about how it took the help of the Russians to win World War II and about how "I see it happening in the White House, too, stealing and all, and it's my feeling they got drugs too" and about how "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer" and about how "nothing don't change."

We talk and walk around and find a box filled with bits and pieces of things that will one day find themselves a part of Purvis's paintings or artist books. In it is an old school book in which Young has begun to glue sketches and paintings he did on what must have been an elementary student's thrown-away notebook papers. One page reads:

Moayad Ali 2/28/95

I know how the Comunoty change

It change by Dgrus it change

by Abuce, and by Merder

and by Killing and by

Fighting and by litering

that's what I know

about the Comunoty.

On this page was Purvis's felt-tip drawing, painted upon, of an angel's head, smiling. Clearly, Purvis sees something more in the "Comunoty" than Moayad Ali did.

For years, thousands of commuters leaving downtown Miami each day passed a man painting by a tree in front of an empty yard a few hundred feet from the I-395 expressway that cuts through Overtown, one of the city's unsavoriest neighborhoods. This is where Purvis Young transforms collected junk--discarded school books and business forms, parts of abandoned buildings, broken packing materials and sandwich signs and furniture, old linoleum tiles, anything found on the streets that paint can be applied to--into art that has hung in the Corcoran, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and other galleries, museums, and private collections on two continents.

Young was born blocks from this neighborhood in 1943 and, except for a few years in Raiford State Prison in the late 1960s, had never left before a short trip to Atlanta for the opening of "Souls Grown Deep," a museum exhibition featuring his work that was part of the 1996 Olympics. He remains remarkably unaffected by his growing reputation as a painter: "I was put on earth to paint, not to live--that's what God put me here for. I never hardly say too much to my neighbors. I just keep my mouth shut. I don't let people get close to me. I'm not aggressive. God didn't put me on earth to say too much. God put me here to paint."

Copyright 1997 Jeffrey Knapp and Tamara Hendershot.