By: Shayne Benowitz
One of Miami's most prolific artists got his start in Overtown
Today, it’s hard to find a wall in the Wynwood Arts District that’s not coated in mural and graffiti art, but before Wynwood’s boom and Miami’s emergence as a premiere arts destination, there was a local artist of the streets named Purvis Young.
Born in Miami’s Liberty City in 1943, Young had a difficult upbringing. As a teenager in the 1960s, he dropped out of school and ended up in North Florida’s Raiford State Penitentiary for three years on breaking and entering charges. It was in prison, though, where Young began drawing and reading art books, influenced by Chicago and Detroit’s mural artists. In 1971, he arrived in Overtown and began painting scenes inspired by life on the streets and his daily observations.
“I ain’t got time to criticize the system too much,” he said in the 2006 documentary film Purvis of Overtown. “But I paint what I see.”
The Artistic Style of Purvis Young
While Young’s work is often classified as folk art, his style of mixing bold, saturated colors and a lack of landscape resonate deeper to the contemporary art movements of Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism. His subjects are African Americans depicted as angels in chains or without homes, pregnant women, wild horses, scenes of social unrest, funerals, lynchings and other representations of life on the streets. They’re at once both raw and hopeful.
Young has cited the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, El Greco and Picasso amongst his influences. His work has been compared to contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, yet he never gained the recognition of these artists due to his near anonymity in Overtown.
He worked with found materials like scrap wood and cardboard, and repurposed discarded books and magazines by pasting his drawings inside them. Eventually, he nailed a collage of his work against the boarded up storefronts of Goodbread Alley where he lived. The installation eventually caught the eye of influential art collectors, including Bernard Davis, then the owner of the Miami Art Museum. Davis became a collector and benefactor, providing Young with support and materials.
The Work of Purvis Young on View Today
While street art is mercurial by nature, Purvis Young’s murals can still be found in Overtown today. The most recent was painted in 2010 on the overpass wall at NW 11th Street and NW 3rd Avenue depicting wild horses, angels and city buildings painted in shades of yellow, green, pink and blue. Another, painted in 1984, is found on the wall of the Culmer/Overtown Public Library branch at NW 13th Street near Gibson Park in the Overtown Folklife Village. Finally, the Northside Metrorail station, north of Overtown, houses a Young mural from 1986.
In addition to these public works, Young’s art can be found in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. In 1999, notable Miami art collectors, the Rubell family, purchased the entirety of Young’s collection, nearly 3,000 pieces. Other famous collectors include Jane Fonda, Damon Wayans, Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Locally, his work can be viewed at the Purvis Young Museum in Fort Lauderdale, while many Miami art institutions have hosted temporary exhibits of his work in recent years.
Lauded for his fierce observational skills and the innate ability to dream, Young passed away in April 2010 at age 67 due to complications from diabetes. He once said of his work, “I try to solve how every man could get along; put honey in the sky where it could drip and make the world sweet.”
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