Purvis Young: By the Book

In the late 1960s, Purvis Young began creating thousands of drawings on found paper that he would later paste into discarded books and magazines to make his own books chronicling the life of his Miami neighborhood of Overtown.

Purvis Young (2000s) by David RaccugliaSouls Grown Deep

As a teenager in the 1960s, Purvis Young served time at the Florida State Penitentiary for breaking and entering. In prison, he became interested in art and was encouraged there to develop his talent.

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungSouls Grown Deep

After his release, Purvis produced thousands of small drawings on found paper—

—correspondence, manila folders, bank statements, bills, memos—thrown away by offices and small manufacturing plants on the fringes of his Overtown community. 

He explained, "You go around and find a bunch of paper a man has thrown away; it's good paper, you take it . . . you pay nothing to the man . . . the paper was there for you."

Untitled (1978) by Purvis YoungOriginal Source: Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

This 1978 drawing is made on a fundraising appeal from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to register Black voters in South Carolina.

It invokes the memory of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Purvis frames the letter with a ring of funeral mourners.

At first, he stored his drawings in shopping carts, but in the mid-seventies, he started pasting them in magazines he found in the street and discarded books from the Culmer/Overtown Branch Library.

Untitled, Purvis Young, 1980, Original Source: Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Untitled, Purvis Young, 1978, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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Untitled, Purvis Young, early 1980s, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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At the library, Purvis studied the history of Western art—drawn especially to the work of Rembrandt, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec, though his influences extended to El Greco, Daumier, and Picasso.

"For so many years, people have been calling me all different kind of names to describe me as an artist; outsider, black artist, ghetto artist, the Picasso of the Ghetto.

"I just want to be called an artist."

Untitled, Purvis Young, mid-1980s, Original Source: National Gallery of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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In his drawings, Purvis documented the social life, sexual rituals, playground sports, struggles, and suffering of his Miami neighborhood of Overtown.

"Like Rembrandt, I'm walking among the people. I'm no different than them. I don't want people to praise me."

Untitled, Purvis Young, early 1980s, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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"Sometimes I see things I don't like. Sometimes homeless guys pushing buggies. I been seeing this all my life. Some of them got drug problems. I look at it that all those guys are angels. Good guys with bad problems."

Untitled, Purvis Young, 1980, Original Source: Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Once a thriving community of Jamaican immigrants, Overtown had been decimated by the construction of Interstate 395 in the late 1960s. What remained of the community struggled with soaring unemployment, drug abuse, and violence.

Another killing last night (1978) by Purvis YoungOriginal Source: Purvis Young Collection, from the Miami-DadePublic Library System

"Guys getting killed all around here."

Untitled (1980) by Purvis YoungOriginal Source: Princeton University Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

"Guy walked up to a guy the other day—guy sold him some bad stuff—boom—blowed his brains. This goes on all the time."

 "I don't think things get better because I think the white man want black folks all messed up."

"But the only thing, when he see the white kid on stuff, he want to do something about it, you know."

Purvis returned again and again to favorite topics—basketball, horses, pregnant women, angels, funerals, boats at sea, people of the streets—occasionally creating a book with a hundred or more drawings dedicated to a single theme.

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungOriginal Source: The Morgan Library & Museum, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The Game

"I love sports. Sometimes I hate to lose." 

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungOriginal Source: The Morgan Library & Museum, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

"When that feeling get me, I do ballplayers, reaching up, trying to catch a pass, happy to be playing, happy to be winning."

Untitled (1978) by Purvis YoungSouls Grown Deep

"Playing in the projects, sometimes that's all they could do, one way of passing time.”

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungSouls Grown Deep

Pregnant Women

"Every day I see in life pregnant women. I try to tell in my paintings that the pregnant woman is the birth of the earth."

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungSouls Grown Deep

"She represent some of the problems I see in the city. She's given birth to some of the characters around." 

"But the way I feel about it is, they're all giving birth to angels."

Untitled (early 1980s) by Purvis YoungSouls Grown Deep

"God sends angels to try to clear up some of this trouble on Earth. I don't listen to the Man, I look up to heaven."

“One time I look at Shakespeare, I say, How one man do all this, you know? I’ve got volumes of sketchbooks and books I’ve done. Volumes of them... Maybe one day someone say “How one man draw all this?”

Untitled, Purvis Young, early 1980s, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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