His artwork is inspiring to behold. His images of city life, laden with images of pregnant women and angels, were most often painted on rough hewn pieces of plywood, old doors, whatever was available to him. Purvis Young was an artistic genius. As Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian’s soon to be opened National Museum of African American History and Culture said in this Miami Herald obituary, “Purvis was one of the great geniuses of American art, a remarkable figure…He wasn’t particularly nurtured, yet was driven to do this work. He was just one of those people who was born with this extraordinary vision and stayed true to it, producing work that had a kind of mythical quality to it.”
So true. To see Purvis Young’s art is to realize his inner world. His interpretation of life, his beliefs, his upbringing and surroundings are all poured out in paint.
In my time as a writer and editor in Miami I heard his name often, most typically uttered with reverence or with regret. I never had the good fortune to interview the legendary artist myself – in my almost-five years at the paper, he was kept estranged from the press and spent time in and out of the hospital. Although I never met Purvis, anecdotes about him abounded in the circle of people I wound up interviewing on a weekly basis.
Funny stories about Pervis macking on ladies in the neighborhood, who happened to stop by his studio, familiar stories of Purvis as neighborhood fixture, riding around Overtown. Sad and morbid stories, of collectors who bought paintings from him in exchange for alcohol, of people who fully realized the value this man’s work would have in death and rubbed their hands together in glee at the prospect, who took advantage of his nature and robbed him before his own eyes.
Purvis Young passed away on April 20. The very next day, a story hit the Broward Palm Beach New Times, titled Did State-Appointed Guardians Bankrupt Purvis Young? It paints a dismal picture of Purvis as a puppet who happened to be able to paint, a man controlled by others who died penniless and manipulated. The New York Times also touched on Young’s troubles in his final years, fraught with legal battles, health problems, and financial struggle. Sad stuff for a man who gifted the world with color, culture and inspiration.
When Purvis Young is remembered, I hope that it is for his beautiful art and undeniable talent. I hope he’s free of the burdens that plagued him in life. RIP, Purvis Young.