Purvis Young Murals

Overtown

By: Shayne Benowitz

Over the last decade, Miami has garnered a reputation as a premiere city for art. It’s played host to Art Basel Miami Beach for more than ten years, spawning dozens of satellite art fairs. The Wynwood Arts District is abuzz with more than 70 galleries. The Miami Art Museum reopened in a state-of-the-art space as the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), overlooking Biscayne Bay on a stretch of green space that is called Museum Park. While it’s hard to find a wall in Wynwood that’s not coated in mural and graffiti art, there was a local Miami artist of the streets who came before all of this.

Purvis Young was born in Miami’s Liberty City in 1943. He never attended high school and as a teenager in the 1960s he served three years in North Florida’s Raiford State Penitentiary on breaking and entering charges. It was in prison that Young began drawing and reading art books. As a self-taught painter, he found himself in Miami’s historically black Overtown neighborhood in 1971 painting what he observed, influenced by the mural art of Chicago and Detroit.

“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.”

His Artistic Style

While his work is often classified as folk art, his style of mixing unusual colors and his lack of landscape resonate deeper to the world of contemporary abstract fine art. His subjects are often African Americans depicted as angels in chains or without a home, pregnant women, wild horses, scenes of social unrest, funerals, lynchings and other observations on life in the ghetto, that are at once raw and hopeful.

The style is reminiscent of Marc Chagall whose work also often lacks the anchor of landscape and depicts people, animals and symbols on a fantastical, floating canvas. Young has cited the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, El Greco and Picasso as influences. His work and its significance has been compared to contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, yet he never quite gained the recognition of these artists due to his near anonymity in Overtown.

He worked with found materials on the street, such as scrap wood and cardboard, and he repurposed discarded books and magazines by pasting drawings inside of them. Eventually, he began nailing his work against boarded up storefronts in Goodbread Alley where he lived and worked. The installation caught the attention of tourists, as well as influential art collectors, including Bernard Davis, the owner of the Miami Art Museum, who became a collector and provided him with art supplies until his death in 1973.

His Work On View Today

While street art can be mercurial in nature—it’s sometimes disassembled, destroyed, or vandalized—there are still Purvis Young murals in Miami to visit today. The most visible serves as a welcome to Historic Overtown on the overpass wall at NW 11th Street and NW 3rd Avenue, painted in 2010. Through this stretch of the neighborhood, the crosswalks are also painted in a colorful rainbow of colors that lead you to another Young mural. It was painted in 1984 and is situated on the wall of the small building that houses the Culmer/Overtown Public Library branch at NW 13th Street near Gibson Park. The Northside Metrorail station, which is north of Overtown, is home to a Young mural from 1986, reminiscent of the public art of another African American folk artist, Romare Bearden, inside New York City’s Westchester Square subway station in the Bronx.

In addition to these public works, Young’s art can be found inside 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. Today, locally, his work can be viewed at the Purvis Young Museum in Fort Lauderdale, as well as at the Purvis Young Gallery in the heart of Wynwood on NW 23rd Street. This was the site of Young’s final Miami studio from 2008 until his death, April 20, 2010, at age 67 from complications related to diabetes.

It’s not every day that Young’s early murals on the streets of Overtown are talked about in relation to what we see today in the adjacent neighborhood, now referred to as the Wynwood Arts District. But it’s hard to ignore the historical influence of this early trailblazing Miami artist as you drive north on NW 3rd Ave. or south down NW 2nd Ave, and watch the scenery outside your window shift seamlessly. A fierce observer with an innate ability to dream, Young 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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