With shades on his face and paint on his fingers, Purvis Young hunches over a slab of wood and posthumously works to turn another piece of junk into an unrivaled work of contemporary art.
Here on the side of a Metrorail overpass in Overtown, rising tall in deep hues of paint, Young is as he was while alive: larger than life, and forever painting.
A self-taught folk hero who prolifically “painted pictures in the gutter,” Young has been gone for more than six years after dying while a ward of the state. In life, his art was first mocked, then revered. In death, his frenetic, repetitive and almost childlike images of people, horses and angels have only risen in prominence.
But in the struggling community he roamed on foot and bicycle and once papered with his work, some worry that Young’s memory is beginning to fade, much like the mural of his work that once covered Overtown’s Third Avenue Metrorail overpass. And so, one stroke at a time, an artist and friend is working to restore not Young’s art, but his memory.
“My whole objective is to inform people about how beautiful a man he was even in a poverty-stricken area. He was yelling without screaming,” said Addonis Parker, a Liberty City artist who has restored two other Young murals. “That’s the message he was trying to convey with the silent protest of his work.”
He was misused and mishandled. I want people to understand.
Last year, Parker’s company was hired by the Southeast Overtown Park West to paint new murals on the overpass, where synthetic fabric bearing images of Young’s work had faded badly. In what will be the first of four murals, Parker is painting a tribute to Young on the northwest facade. He named the piece Good Bread Alley after the street where in the ’70s where Young created his own version of Chicago’s Wall of Respect, and in doing so first attracted the attention of many art patrons.
Through imagery that includes an American flag, a dove and images of Young at various ages, Parker says he’s highlighting the Overtown hero’s work and his place in his community. But Parker is also drawing attention to how Young, despite his genius, died destitute as his art made its way around the world.
“I want this to be a beautiful but painful reminder of how you treated an artist, a genius,” he said.
Unavoidably, Young’s death at 67 under the supervision of court-appointed guardians has become as much a part of his legacy as his storybook life.
A nomadic man who claimed he was visited by an angel while imprisoned as a teenager, Young preferred painting on garbage like old doors or books to working on canvas. Those who knew him say he was often reserved, and cared little for money or status.
“I think the most he ever dressed up was the day of his funeral,” said Eddie Mae Lovest, his longtime girlfriend.
His art was everywhere.
Irby McKnight, Overtown activist
Sometimes, Young would simply give his work away, or post it in public. His Good Bread Alley installation, long since dismantled, was built by attaching works to dilapidated buildings.
“Purvis had the neighborhood covered,” said Irby McKnight, a longtime activist and resident. “They were nailed to trees and attached to telephone poles. His art was everywhere.”
Young painted so frequently that his studio would fill to the brim, leading to fire sales where trucks would pull up and drive away with loads of art. In the documentary Purvis of Overtown, Don and Mera Rubell said they were so overwhelmed by his collection they chose to buy the entire load.
Eventually, thousands of Young’s works made their way into important private collections and museums like the Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art — and out of Overtown. Today, the Black Archives boasts a collection of several hundred works, and the Culmer/Overtown library features a Young mural that was recently touched-up by Parker, but art that was once ubiquitous in the community is now scarce.
Larry Clemons, owner of the Purvis Young museum in Fort Lauderdale, said he and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz tried to bring the museum to Overtown but found the politics too daunting. Distrust in the community was also an issue, he said.
“I just felt uncomfortable,” Clemons said. “There was too much distrust. I worried that if we tried to create something beautiful it would be pillaged.”
As Young’s reputation grew, his business relationships with dealers and managers blossomed and frayed. His art grew in popularity, but he and his friends and family began to suspect his handlers were taking advantage of him.
“He had a lot of people really using him who put his name out in the lights,” said Lovest.
Young’s last spat would prove infamous. In his 60s, while in failing health, he sued broker Martin Siskind. In return, Siskind successfully petitioned a court to have Young declared incompetent. A judge appointed guardians to manage his health and finances, ironically placing Young under the thumb of a system he’d rebelled against with his work.
“I think what hurt him the most was more his freedom,” said attorney Richard Zandel, who represented Young. “Before the guardianship he could sell his paintings whenever he wanted. He could carry cash and pay for this and pay for that. When the guardianship was opened he didn’t have control over his own paintings anymore.”
In Parker’s mural, he plans to paint one of Young’s most endearing symbols to represent Young’s demise: a face with tears dripping down. Some question why the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency wouldn’t replace Young’s wrap-based mural with more of his work, but Lovest said she thinks Parker’s work will elevate Young’s image in the community he loved.
“You got him looking so real I want to hug him,” she told Parker last week. “It’s beautiful. It’s just what the neighborhood needs.”