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Friday, June 9, 2023

Faces of Young: Purvis Young's Good Bread Alley

fig. 1, Purvis Young (1943–2010), Mary and Jesus, ca. 1970s, Acrylic on Metal, Diam. 35 inches, Courtesy, The Museum of Everything (


fig. 2, Purvis Young (1943–2010), Jazz Trio, 1974, Acrylic on Wood, 50 x 48 inches, Courtesy, Ronald and June Shelp

In 2011, when Purvis Young’s Mary and Jesus (Fig. 1) realized a $25,000 (hammer) price at Slotin’s Fall Masterpiece Sale, it was a watershed moment for the Miami-based African-American folk artist who passed away a little over a year earlier after a long battle with diabetes. The sale doubled the previous auction record price for an example of Young’s work. Without any formal training, or even a high school diploma, Young overcame an adolescence of crime to become one of the most important outsider artists; his work both known and shown throughout the world, and in over fifty museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia; the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Bass Museum in Miami (Fig. 2).

fig. 3, Purvis Young (1943–2010), Faces of Young, 2011, Exhibition, Cohen Gallery, Goggleworks Center for the Arts, Reading, April 1–April 30, 2011. Courtesy, Outsider Folk Art Gallery
Young was born in Liberty City, Miami, on February 2, 1943. At Florida’s Raiford State Penitentiary, where he spent three years in the early 1960s, he turned to drawing, an activity his uncle taught him in his childhood, but which he had abandoned. According to Young, an angel had spoken to him in prison and told him to create. Back on the streets of his Miami neighborhood, Overtown, considered one of the worst ghettoes in the United States, Young began to draw inspiration from photographs of murals, notably, the Wall of Respect mural in Chicago and the Freedom Wall in Detroit, as well as from the civil rights and Vietnam protests of the sixties, and the Black Arts Movement (Fig. 3) Coalescing all of these influences, Young created what continues to be his watershed work, the murals of Good Bread Alley. The mural, since torn down, consisted of hundreds of pictures painted on pieces of wood, then nailed to the side of boarded up buildings along Fourteenth Street, known locally as Good Bread Alley for the smell of bread that once floated down the street. The mural was so colorful it could be seen from I-95 which, when it had been rerouted through the area, cut off Overtown economically and culturally from the rest of Miami. The mural was taken down piece by piece by the city and warehoused, but Young was told it had been destroyed.

fig. 4, Purvis Young recreates Good Bread Alley for Raccuglia’s film Purvis Of Overtown. Courtesy, Larry T. Clemons, Ft. Lauderdale.

Fig. 5, Purvis Young (1943-2010), Black Jesus, 1973, Acrylic on Wood, 95 x 47 inches, Courtesy, Jack D’Elia, D’Elia purchased this image at the 2009 Outsider Art, Fair, New York, NY.

Before it was taken down the mural drew the attention of Miamians, including the local art community and thrust Young into the spotlight. He became part celebrity and part urban legend granting numerous interviews during his lifetime. David Raccuglia, director of the documentary Purvis of Overtown, told in 2006, “…Purvis was the artist he was because of where he lived. Overtown, for better or worse, is his muse; he is what he is because of it. The history of Overtown can be found in his paintings. The suffering of the people can be found in his work, as well as the hope he has for the city and the people.” Raccuglia purchased many of the pieces for the Good Bread Alley era (1972–1975) for use in his film from collectors and dealers. He used many of these works to re-create the mural of Good Bread Alley for film (Fig. 4).

It was in the cauldron of Overtown’s poverty and violence that Young’s early life of crime, as well as his life of art, was forged. In Young’s eyes the world was full of racism, class struggle, violence, and hypocrisy. “I don’t like the luxury I see of a lot of these church people while the world is getting worser,” Young said in a mid-nineties interview reprinted in his New York Times obituary. “What I say is the world is getting worser; guys pushing buggies, street people not having no jobs here in Miami, drugs kill the young, and church people riding around in luxury cars.”
Fig. 6, Purvis Young (1943-2010), Returning Soldier, 1973, Acrylic on Metal Tray, 24 x 23½ inches, Courtesy, Outsider Folk Art Gallery

Fig. 7, Purvis Young (1943-2010), The Struggle, 1973-1974, Acrylic on Wood, 88 x 70 inches, Courtesy, Outsider Folk Art Gallery, At the 2012 Outsider Art Fair, George Viener made Young’s The Struggle the centerpiece of the Outsider Folk Art Gallery’s booth. A work that was part of the Good Bread Alley mural, The Struggle is raw and telling; full of race, culture, and community.

And while Young’s work is tied inextricably to Overtown, in many ways his work actually is Overtown. Not only was Good Bread Alley a mural on an Overtown building, many of the paintings are on materials and other debris he found throughout Overtown. From chunks of plywood and other construction materials Young would fashion frames for his paintings. Luscious, shimmering colored house paint combines with dull, matte house paint adding layers to imagery physically as visceral as its content and inspiration. Early works show pencil lines as Young was teaching himself drawing techniques, which he deemed unnecessary as his confidence grew in his forms. “You have not experienced the essence of Purvis Young artwork until you have poked yourself with a nail,” said collector Jack D’Elia, who purchased Young’s 1973 Black Jesus (Fig. 5).

As with all of Young’s work, the Good Bread Alley pieces are steeped in symbolism and emotion. No matter how expressionist or haphazard his work may appear at first glance, there is always a deeper purpose, suffusing Young’s art. Trains, trucks, and railroad tracks represent an escape from oppression; in his paintings the vehicles on I-95 are all leaving Overtown. People, often painted as angels with halos, reach skyward for Heaven, illustrating a release from a life of misery in Overtown. Musicians figure prominently, representing the many Overtown-based musicians able to leave the ghetto because of their talent (Fig. 6). Pregnant women represent hope for new life, blue eyes represent white men, and African Americans wearing helmets illustrate the numbers unrecognized for their sacrifices in the Vietnam War.

Young spent much of his time watching public television and visiting libraries, where he befriended librarians who would pass along discarded books, which Young often used as vessels for his drawings, creating magnificent journals of art. Many of these hand-crafted journals exist, but many were ripped apart so individual pages could be sold. Interested in history, Young saw similarities between the treatment by whites of African Americans and the Seminole Indians of Florida (Fig. 7). As Young saw it, African Americans and the Seminole were brothers and sisters. In his paintings, black figures and red figures alike raise their arms to Heaven looking for their salvation. Often, works include horses ridden by warriors; like trucks and trains, a symbol of freedom. These images also represented the spirit of the Seminole.

Young’s place in art history is as solid as the works in the art history books that inspired him back in the 1960s. His paintings will continue to illuminate those who struggle with oppression and feed the imagination of people the world over.

The Outsider Folk Art Gallery, owned by art dealer George Viener and his wife, Sue, administers over 1,000 pieces of Young’s works, which the Vieners own with collector Tim Grumbacher. Recently, the gallery has been cataloguing the works and promoting Young’s legacy through continuing exhibitions and educational programs. George Viener has a history with Purvis Young and his work dating from the 1990s when first exposed to the artist. Viener began purchasing Young’s work and in 2007 visited documentary filmmaker David Raccuglia’s warehouse in Boulder, Colorado, which contained the early works of the Good Bread Alley mural. The Raccuglia collection was acquired by Tim Grumbacher and George Viener in 2008.

In 2011, the traveling exhibition Purvis Young: Faces of Young showcased the Good Bread Alley masterpieces at Cheyney University, the first African-American university in the United States, in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, as well as at the Goggleworks Center for the Arts, Reading, Pennsylvania. Works in these exhibits had previously been loaned to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, for their 2009–2010 exhibition Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The 2011 exhibit was made possible through a partnership with the Outsider Folk Art Gallery in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Emily A. Branch manages the collection of George and Sue Viener, owners of the Outsider Folk Art Gallery. To learn more about the Purvis Young Good Bread Alley collection, please visit