THE PASSING OF PURVIS YOUNG
I think about Purvis Young, a movie-trailer of moments runs
through my mind -- from our first meeting until his death
on April 20, 2010. Each snippet a story and education unto
itself; run together these clips span three years in Miami.
S & S Diner on NE Second Avenue located across the street
from the cemetery is a favourite Miami breakfast spot. Despite
twelve years of counter dining where I zipped in and out of
this rundown and so-called dangerous part of town, I somehow
I missed the secret art studio of Purvis Young across the
alley. How many times were we at the diner simultaneously,
me eating eggs or pancakes and Purvis his daily tuna fish
sandwich? How privileged I was to eat with him at the diner
many times after we met.
first met in 2006 when Young was selected as Director’s
Choice for the 17th annual Art Miami Contemporary Art fair.
Walking into the studio was like walking into one of his paintings.
Wildly colourful, everything is recycled or “found”
including the red velvet fainting couch that was Young’s
favourite perch. My eyes adjusted and I found the artist sitting
quietly, petting his rescue dog Goodbread, named after his renowned
Goodbread Alley art installation. Weighing in at close to 300
lbs at the time, Young’s girth did not overwhelm the petite
couch nor overtake the studio. His serenity counteracted his
matter the time of day a television droned on in a back room
where Young napped; he rarely slept a full night. One evening
after an interview with the Miami Herald, I was departing
and bent down to give Purvis a hug and kiss on the cheek. He
was surprised. “I am 60 years old and you are the first
white woman that has touched me.” This shocked me as a
true New Yorker, race did not preclude people from touching
each other, and hadn’t since the 50s and here it is the
first decade of the 21st century in southern Florida and race
was still an issue.
are at least two schools of artists: those who have said all
they have to say through their work and those who love to wax
erudite about their work. Talking with Purvis about his paintings
satisfied my need to understand without hearing a ton of artist-speak.
When I inquired about his work he had sharp, short and sane
figure of a nude pregnant woman with her arms stretched to the
sky is one of Young’s significant icons appearing alone
or in groups throughout he work. “My pregnant woman stands
for hope which comes from birth and God,” said Young.
Hope, as Young continued, “is a common wish without attention
to our colour or religion.” Simple, eloquent and something
that we can all relate to and desire. The viewer doesn’t
have to “get” Young’s work or be given an
interpretation by art world experts. The work appeals on a visceral
level, the story is obvious, the colours glorious and the materials
are those we encounter everywhere and not only in art supply
of people, either white or black, populate his paintings. The
black groups represent Purvis’ “tribe” and
those upon horseback are the leaders. Horses represent freedom.
Succinct and easy to grasp, we all have our groups whether by
race, religion or location. We yearn for community and belonging
and Purvis understood this well. He often spoke about “finding”
and rejoining his African tribe after death.
considered Young simple of mind and unstable as examples of
his belonging to the genre of outsider artist. Having known
Purvis, he was neither. He was very private and shared his
thoughts with those in his very tight circle of family and
a smattering of friends, many of whom have been in his life
also received these labels due to his unfortunate dealings
with people who stole from him, misrepresented
him and used him for their own good. What this came from was
his willingness to trust people, regardless of warnings from
others and foul treatment experienced first hand. He kept
people in his world long after they proved themselves untrustworthy
-- Purvis gave people unlimited opportunities to redeem themselves
with him. Somebody must be crazy to allow others to take and
take without putting an end to the problem, don’t they?
wasn’t crazy -- he was a people-pleaser. People wanted
his art and so he painted prolifically. People wanted to lay
claim to him and he acquiesced not because he didn’t know
better but because he wanted to give everyone in his life whatever
they wanted. He was generous and loving. He treated Eddie Mae’s
children and grandchildren as if they were his own. Nothing
illustrated his sanity better than observing Purvis talk with
his grandchildren -- but this was private. As was his sadness
when his dog “disappeared” after a stint in the
hospital. He was convinced that those meant to care for Goodbread
simply let him go in the streets. Until the last days of his
life Purvis missed this sweet dog.
trusting nature yielded financial problems and mishandling
of his career by others. A simple Google search will bring
these names to light but have no business here as they have
benefited enough from Purvis. During the final years of his
life misery was his frame of mind as his ability to run his
own life was legally stripped from him.
Purvis wanted was freedom and this was something he never
had. He wanted to live life his way and paint what he wanted
when he wanted and these options were taken from him. Others
had their opinion of him shaped by the courts, doctors and
the public. He preferred not to fight or rebel other than
through the messages in his art. “I realized that standing
up for what I believe and fighting for it would only land
me in jail. I went once and that was enough. From then on,
I expressed my thoughts through my paintings instead of through
legacy is already being mishandled and his work sold at bargain
prices when it should be increasing in value because there
is no more and yet there is so much. He was a treasure and
but never regarded as such. Purvis was a kind and loving man,
a family man who deserved a better life. He will be missed
and those of us who were privy to his intuitive and insightful
thinking will wish more had been written down so that others
could know the man and not the portrait painted by others.
my friend, I hope you have found your tribe in heaven and
are resting easy.
are courtesy of Doug Hirsch.