In the late 1960s, Interstate 95 was built through, or more precisely over, Purvis Young’s Miami neighborhood. The heavy traffic, which had brought crowds of people into an already crowded community, disappeared. The large population of Overtown (ironically, now under a highway) dispersed and diminished. Purvis Young stayed. A vacant alley in the neighborhood attracted him. Jamaican immigrants had once operated bakeries there, but now were gone. They, and the others who chose to go, left behind a row of abandoned buildings. They also left a passageway with a colorful nickname, Goodbread Alley.
Young was drawn to Goodbread Alley for several reasons. Its desolation was suitable for a man who preferred privacy, even isolation, to the company of others. His mentor, protector, and only close friend, Silo Crespo, an Afro-Cuban Santeria priest, lived nearby. Perhaps the Alley’s Caribbean connection was meaningful–Young views boat people as a particularly graphic symbol of disenfranchisement. In addition, Young’s own heritage was Caribbean. And Goodbread Alley had a pragmatic allure for an aspiring artist with a social conscience.
Young had served time for breaking and entering as a teenager in the early sixties. He became interested in art while in prison and was encouraged there to develop his talent. After release from prison, he produced thousands of small drawings, which he kept in shopping carts and later glued into discarded books and magazines that he found in the streets. The drawings in these books would generally cover a range of Young’s favorite topics–buildings in the city, funerals, horses, boats at sea, people of the streets–but Young would occasionally create a book with a hundred or more drawings dedicated to a single theme. The drawings might be inscribed with short, sometimes cryptic, and often poetic phrases. In some of the books, he seems to be a disciple of William Blake; when Young shows us his impressions of the sea and solitary boats adrift, he seems a restless brother of Hokusai.
By the early seventies, Young had decided upon a role for himself in Overtown. Inspired by wall murals in cities with large African American populations, he chose to do for his community what artists in Chicago and Detroit had done for theirs. Although Young had not attempted to paint before, now he was highly motivated. Goodbread Alley, with its solitude and stretch of boarded-up store fronts, provided Young with his own private urban wall.
What followed was a frenzied period of artmaking activity. Painting after painting, all sizes and shapes, were attached to the alley walls, revealing through a series of bold, dramatic, and confident allegories, Purvis Young’s Overtown world. Young had become fascinated with Western art history and had voraciously absorbed the contents of every art book he could find at the public library near his home. He speaks admiringly of Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Gauguin, among others, but he has obviously looked at el Greco and Daumier and Picasso. All the imagery, however, is filtered through Purvis Young’s sensibilities, and the result is a style that is remarkably consistent over three decades. It is a resolute and ambitious vision from a man who has appointed himself Overtown’s resident historian. He is a man who likes to be an accurate and honest observer of the street life and events but does not believe he should bear any responsibility for what he sees. He has the insight, sagacity, and charisma to be a ghetto guru, but he does not want the burden of devotees. His wish is to share his knowledge with as many of his acquaintances as possible, and then to retreat to a quiet corner of a barricaded storage room to read, contemplate, and sleep.
Now middle aged, Young has concluded that he needs to reeducate himself. He believes that much of the information fed to him throughout his life has been inconsistent with the truth as he now perceives it. In response to this realization, he watches historical documentaries on public television about wars, the Great Depression, commerce, and the struggles of Native Americans. He searches for truth and accuracy, so that his own art will not misinform or mislead. In a sense, he is making his own documentaries. He records the social life, sexual rituals, playground sports, and the struggling and suffering of his neighborhood culture, and that of the city to which it is attached. Despite his success, he continues to maintain the appearance and attitude of poverty and homelessness. Perhaps it is a camouflage that allows him to blend into the landscape, better enabling him to observe the natural behavior of the streets. “Sometimes the way I dress,” he says, “some people don’t understand. I like to walk around like this here. I got friends. I got friends out there. They is modeling for me.”
Almost every day, Young searches the streets of Overtown for materials to incorporate into his artwork.Young’s paintings are more than paintings. They are assemblages made from an array of urban detritus carefully selected by the artist according to his sense of their aesthetic and philosophical compatibility. His haul may include plywood, broken furniture, mirrors, window shades, carpet scraps, splintered wood, metal trays, record albums, wallpaper samples, glass, and paper–correspondence, manila folders, bank statements, bills, memos—thrown away by small manufacturing plants and offices still remaining on the fringes of the community. The materials are chosen for more than texture, color and form; young considers each object’s original use, and in his final creation–gathered, selected, arranged, nailed or glued together, painted, and framed–each component carries its own subtle and highly esoteric definition. A finished Young work, particularly a large-scale one, is often a combination of painted surface—or several painted surfaces–and a highly original frame, usually of wood fragments, that are often painted themselves. Everything is joined together collage-style. The final product reflects immediacy and spontaneity, like the music that is probably playing nearby. “I listen to old rock, jazz, blues. A melody is what you listen to, to get new ideas.”
The art of Purvis Young is equal parts calligraphy, music, and graffiti. Its basic themes bump, collide, and eventually unite to reveal the chaotic and cacophonous dance of birth, death, and all that transpires in between in the artist’s world. A pregnant woman confronts a funeral procession; basketball players and convoys of trucks compete for space; looters carry away cases of stolen merchandise; workers lug tools and equipment to a construction site; grieving mourners raise a coffin above their heads. They are all the same people, all trying to stay one step ahead of the law, hunger, and death. Purvis Young knows this, and he wants us to know. “What’s on my mind, I paint,” he says.