The old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” held true for Purvis Young, who took discarded magazines, books, and pieces of wood and transformed them into art. Much of what he created was public—on display in a Miami neighborhood that had been drastically altered by interstate highways.         

Young was born in Liberty City, an area of Miami whose population held one of the largest concentrations of black residents in south Florida. It is also the location of the earliest federal housing project in the South. Young did not finish high school; as a teenager he was charged with breaking and entering and was incarcerated at the Raiford State Penitentiary in north Florida from 1961 to 1964. His uncle, a well-known sign painter, had introduced him to drawing earlier in his life, and he began to pursue it during his confinement. While there he also studied art books, which became a lifelong passion that he continually sought out at the local library. He particularly admired Rembrandt, Gauguin, Picasso, and Fredrick Remington. Following his release Young produced thousands of small expressionist drawings which he mounted into old books and magazines.

In 1971 Young took up residence in Overtown, a neighborhood known as “Colored Town” during the Jim Crow era. Before the late 1950s and urban renewal it was a commercially thriving district with an active nightlife that attracted noted entertainers such as Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. When Interstate I-95 split the community, the number of residents dropped significantly, and the area became an impoverished ghetto. Inspired by the mural arts movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Young began a mural along Good Bread Alley, so named because of the Jamaican bakeries that had been there in the past. He mounted panels of wood, cardboard, and metal on abandoned storefronts and filled them with expressively drawn paintings.

People stole some of the panels from his mural, but he just replaced them with new ones. His mural garnered local attention, and eventually he was discovered by tourists—mostly white—and began to sell his work, even gaining a few celebrity clients like Jane Fonda and Dan Aykroyd. Bernard Davis, owner of the Miami Art Museum, became a patron, supporting Young with art supplies for a few years before his death. In 1999 the Rubell family—founders of Miami’s Rubell Museum—purchased the entire contents of Young’s studio, around three thousand pieces. Subsequently, they donated 108 works to Morehouse College in Atlanta. Over time he achieved notoriety and money which led to a dispute with his manager, Martin Siskind, whom he sued for mismanagement. In retaliation, Siskind had Young declared incompetent over the objections of the artist’s friends. Posthumously, in 2018 the Florida Artists Hall of Fame saluted him and the following year, there was an exhibition of his work at Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy.

Young was extraordinarily prolific and developed a distinctive personal style of painting and collage-making which included various discarded items such as old rugs, mirrors, and broken furniture. To these he applied paint, sometimes with brushes, other times with his fingers. The end result is expressionistic and colorful, with little concern for traditional perspectival devices. In an autobiographical interview Young, clearly a storyteller, described some of his sources: “When I started with the figure painting, I liked to show good peoples, heroes like that. They fight for a cause. They done good things, they helped the struggle, you know. They’re not necessarily just black peoples. I got good white peoples in my paintings. … I painted a lot of angels back there.” He also painted horses, boats, railroad tracks, graveyards, soldiers, and athletes, using his own imagery, symbolism, and folklore to forge connections between the world he lived in and the one he painted. In 2015, The Bass Museum of Art donated roughly 400 pieces of Young's art to the permanent collection in the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. The Foundation was founded as a non-profit organization “to collect and preserve the rapidly vanishing material that reflects the African American experience in Miami-Dade County.” This selection of works continues to be shown in the Historic Lyric Theater of Overtown.