Irvin Byrd recalled how it took a revelation in a prison cell for his brother, Purvis Young, to understand what he was put on earth to do.
Young was serving time for a breaking and entering charge in the early 1960s when, Byrd said, Young told him about how angels appeared to him with a message.
“When I was in my cell one night, I woke up and the angels came to me,’’ Byrd said of Young’s conversation. ‘‘And I told ‘em, ‘You know, hey man, this is not my life’ — and they said they were gonna make a way for me.”
Byrd recounted the story Friday night at the opening of a retrospective of Young’s work at the Artopia Art Center, 1753 NE Second Ave. The exhibit coincided with the fourth anniversary of Young’s passing. Young, whose work has appeared in the Smithsonian and other major art museums, died on April 20, 2010 after a long battle with diabetes. He was 67. (Byrd also noted his brother’s name was Pervis, not Purvis, as he was commonly called. He pointed to a video of Young signing his name with the “e” to back up his claim.)
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After the visit by the “angels,” Young started reading up on art masters — Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso — and began painting and drawing. Once out of prison, he took to Goodbread Alley, an area of Overtown that had been populated with Jamaican bakeries before the construction of Interstate 95 drove residents out.
The longtime Overtown resident painted scenes and put together collages to represent life in his neighborhood, using as his canvas objects he found in the streets, from discarded wood to dresser drawers, mirrors, pages ripped out of books, tile, cloth and loose-leaf paper. He nailed his art to the vacant storefronts.
“I paint from reality. I paint problems of the world. And sometimes I get to myself and cry,” said Young in the documentary, Purvis of Overtown.
Angels, wild horses, funerals, pregnant women, railroad tracks, boats and squiggly figures prevail throughout his work; scenes of social unrest, a reflection of his daily life in the city, is a common theme of Young’s.
“The angels are flying out of the city to free its people out of bondage.” said Martin Siskind, director of Artopia.
Siskind was Young’s former manager. Their relationship took a turbulent turn toward the end of Young’s life, with Young suing Siskind for mismanagement of funds and Siskind telling a judge the artist was mentally incompetent. In the end, a court-appointed legal guardian managed Young’s affairs.
Panamanian artist Alfonso Rendón, known as “Masplata,” in the art world, said one piece of advice that Young had told him was “When you hear the word trust — run.” He is one of six artists displaying and selling his work at Artopia, which showcases a mix of emerging artists, mid-career and masters under one roof.
Young’s work hangs in the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the American Folk Museum in Manhattan and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other well-known museums and galleries. His murals can be seen on the “Welcome to Historic Overtown” overpass as well as the Culmer/Overtown library branch and the Northside Metrorail station.
In 1999 the Rubell family purchased about 3,000 of Young’s pieces and donated more than 100 of his works to Morehouse College, the historically black college in Atlanta. Lenny Kravitz and Jane Fonda, among other celebrities, also own his work.
“The first thing that struck me was the hopefulness of the work. God lives in them,” said Fonda in the documentary.
Nelson Fox, the owner of Meat Market on Lincoln Road, was perusing through the displayed works on Friday evening. He started collecting Young’s work after Siskind educated him about Young’s different period pieces. Fox said he admired “how one man could rise up out of the ghetto.” Though Young traveled to attend his exhibitions in different states, he lived in Overtown until his passing.
“The purpose of tonight is keeping his legacy alive,” says Siskind of Young. “That’s what we’re trying to do. He will be known as one of the greatest artists of this century.”
Works from Chagall, Picasso and Renoir also hang on Artopia’s walls.
Said Siskind: “Pervis always wanted to hang out with them. And he is now. So, his wish did come true.”