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December 9, 2008
Officials honor Overtown art icon Purvis Young

Miami officials last week honored artist Purvis Young, who has spent decades recording the woes and hopes of Overtown in paintings of brilliant colors and wild energy.

Nearly everyone in Overtown knows Purvis Young. For decades, neighbors have seen him pedaling his bike through the community and often called out to him.

Folks like Richard Johnson, a grade-school buddy of Young's: ''Hey, Purvis, how you doin'?'' Johnson asked Friday as the artist rolled by in his wheelchair, stopping to chat.

During that day's celebration of the area's first Folklife Festival, Miami officials gave the self-taught painter who put Overtown on the art-world map a key to the city. The ceremony took place in front of the newly renovated Jackson Soul Food restaurant.

It was a fitting tribute to a wildly creative soul who never abandoned the frustrating and fascinating community -- many call it a ghetto -- whose woes he recorded on pieces of found junk.

''Some say he is too prolific, but that's like saying birds fly too much or that Shakespeare wrote too much,'' Commissioner Joe Sanchez said before handing Young an antique-looking key mounted on blue velvet. ``He's my friend, your friend, an icon.''

The taciturn 65-year-old artist, as usual, shrugged off the praise with a wave of his hand.

''I just have to paint,'' he said. 'I look up to the sky and say, `Father, help me become great.' ''

In the background, a huge mural by Young, on a section of Metrorail track straddling Northwest Third Avenue at 11th Street, welcomed all to ``Historic Overtown, Established 1896.''

Young, who was actually born further north in Liberty City, moved to Overtown as a child. He currently works out of a studio in Wynwood, at 255 NW 23rd St.

In the 2006 documentary Purvis of Overtown, directed by photographer David Raccuglia and filmmaker Shaun Conrad, the painter says he dropped out of school at 16. In his early 20s, he spent three years in jail for breaking and entering.

''Angels came to me and I said, this isn't my life,'' Young says in the film. He learned to paint while behind bars.

That experience is documented in one of the many hundreds of Young works crammed in nearly every nook of the tiny Purvis Young Museum in Fort Lauderdale, 725 Progresso Dr.

''Purvis is Overtown,'' said art dealer Larry Clemons, who also co-produced the documentary, adding that Young has been one of the best chroniclers of the history happening around him.

In eye-popping hues, he depicted the blues musicians who kept Overtown jumping in the 1940s and '50s, the black folks who lived under the yoke of Jim Crow law, the unrest that shook the area in the '70s and '80s, and the angels and wild horses who redeem the people and give them hope in the midst of blight.

''I wish the world was better,'' Young said Friday, looking up Third Avenue, which was dubbed ''Hope Street'' for the day. ``It just puzzles me the way the world is.''

Over the years, more and more prominent collectors noticed Young's work. In 1999, Mera and Don Rubell, owners of one of the world's most admired troves of art, bought the entire contents of Purvis' warehouse, donating much of the work to museums all over the nation.

''Now his paintings hang in mansions,'' said Clemons, whose dream is to open a Purvis Young Museum in Overtown, where he feels it belongs. ``Mayor Manny Diaz showed some interest, and I think this is the right time to make it happen.''


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