Fall 2014

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92 Venice ART & SOUL The art world considered his work "outsider art." But to those who recognized his self-taught talent, Purvis Young was a man who put a forgotten South Florida neighborhood on the map. BY ERIC NEWILL PORTRAITS BY DAVID A. RACCUGLIA 134 Venice bove all, Purvis Young told stories. For more than 40 years, in thou- sands upon thousands of works, he depicted the tales of Miami's Overtown, translating a lifetime's worth of inner-city experiences, observations and ac- quaintances into a lyrical history of that embattled neighborhood. Faces peer from behind jail bars, and abstract groups form protests. Angels—some human, some celestial—offer comfort and hope, while boats, railway cars and horses evoke visions of escape and freedom. Born in 1943 into a vibrant, thriving area of steady families and success- ful establishments, Young witnessed his neighborhood's decline after whole city blocks were knocked down to create the new interstate, a civic decision that ruined lives, uprooted generations and tore asunder the fabric of the com- munity. Overtown's decline mirrored Young's own when he was arrested and sent to prison for a youthful infraction. While incarcerated, he began to paint. Never formally educated, Young's iconoclastic work became a hallmark of "out- sider art," a phrase denoting pieces created without classical technique and often using primitive, found materials. "If struggle was a preeminent theme within his work, overcoming struggle was even more important," says Clare Vickery, owner of Dania Beach's Grace Cafe and Galleries, and a close friend of Young's toward the end of his life. "He would talk a lot about God and suffering, but his painted warriors on horseback and his images of pregnant women giving birth represented the re- generation of individuals. His angels were the means by which God was open- ing the door to freedom." After his release from prison, Young returned to Overtown, fired by a pas- sion to document what he saw—the poverty and hardship as well as the good- ness and redemption. Inspired by Chicago's Wall of Respect—an outdoor mural depicting African-American leaders—he hung scores of pieces side by side in an ancient, narrow passage called Good Bread Alley, located at 14th Street and NW Third Avenue. Richard Levine, an early collector, remembers seeing this colorful display from the highway in the mid-1970s. "I used to pass over these slum shacks with paintings nailed to them, and then read in the Herald that they were going to be ripped down and the work thrown away," A

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