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Purvis Young’s art finds home in Camillus House

Two of Purvis Young’s pieces hang in the waiting area of Camillus House, the Miami homeless shelter, on Nov. 21, 2014. Seated are clients, left to right, Rhonda Dixon, Rhoda Mae Lopez and Antonio Frontela.
Two of Purvis Young’s pieces hang in the waiting area of Camillus House, the Miami homeless shelter, on Nov. 21, 2014. Seated are clients, left to right, Rhonda Dixon, Rhoda Mae Lopez and Antonio Frontela. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A glass frame with black borders encases a piece of broken plywood.

Depicted on the wood: A black figure lying on the floor, while more than 30 squiggly figures walk past, unfazed.

The artwork was done by Purvis Young, the Overtown artist whose work has garnered national accolades for its depiction of everyday life in the embattled neighborhood.

The latest venue for Young’s collection? Camillus House, the downtown Miami shelter that has been helping the homeless for more than 50 years. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, along with the Rubell Family Collection and other private donors, raised $60,000 to help purchase originals and copies of Purvis Young’s pieces, which are now adorning Camillus House’s halls, rooms and waiting areas.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to weave the arts into the fabric of the community,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president of the arts at the Knight Foundation. “And it really reinforces to me the value of identifying hometown artistic heroes and making sure they have a place in their own neighborhood.”

Young, a self-taught artist who lived and practiced his craft in Overtown, became famous in the early 1970s for creating murals and collages that portrayed his life. By using anything he could find while living on the streets, Young expressed himself on cracked tiles, ripped pieces of clothing and even wood chunks like the one hanging in the Camillus Health reception area. Young, whose work has been featured in the Smithsonian Institution and other museums, died in 2010 from diabetes; he was 67.

For Pablo Hernandez, 25, who was waiting to be attended by Camillus Health, a sister agency of Camillus House, Young’s artwork depicted familiar scenes from the neighborhood.

“It’s true,” said Hernandez, referring to the artwork’s body on the floor. “When people are lying there, people come and go and nobody takes notice,” added Hernandez, who used to be homeless about four years ago.

Bringing artists to Camillus House was important to Brother Raphael Mieszala, director of pastoral care, because Young is someone the clients of Camillus could relate to.

“Purvis is Overtown,’’ said Mieszala, who has been working at the shelter since 1997, except for a three-year period leading up to his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. He rejoined Camillus in 2006. “He put into art what the poor people here are thinking, and he expressed it so beautifully and in simple form so we can all understand.”

Last year, Camillus Health treated more than 4,700 people, with 95.7 percent of them making less than federal poverty levels.

Johnny Delva, 33, a security guard at Camillus Health, says the artwork has made his job easier. “I love it. Now the ambiance is very calm and relaxed because they’re curious and they’re very surprised when they hear the artist came from this area.

“Now there’s dialogue. The clients come up to me and ask me what the art represents, they want to know what it means and it’s very informative.”

This was the kind of result Shed Boren, executive director of Camillus Health, was looking for when he helped coordinate the funds that secured 35 original Purvis Youngs, some of which were donations, to the clinic.

“The whole idea is that art is culture,” said Boren, Ph.D., who recently joined Camillus House last June and has been transforming the facility into a welcoming center. “As I discovered more and more about Purvis, the meaning came about much more. It gives the patients a place to escape to while they’re waiting to be helped by the clinicians.”

Young’s brother, Irvin Byrd, 57, continues to tell his story.

“Purvis said an angel came to him and told him, ‘Get out and let everybody see your drawings,’” said Byrd, who remembers his brother used to spend a lot of time teaching himself through books and educational videos.

“He represents Overtown all over the world.”

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