"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
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