Inspired by documentaries, (art)books, American history and spiritual folklore his visual vocabuluary was vast; wild horses, urban landscapes, (self) portraits, figures, holymen, angels, warriors, boats, sports, musicians, erotica, processions and incarceration to name but a few....(purvisyoung.com)
As a teenager Young served three years (1961–64) in prison at North Florida's Raiford State Penitentiary for breaking and entering. While in prison he would regain his interest in art and began drawing and studying art books.When released, he began to produce thousands of small drawings, which he kept in shopping carts and later glued into discarded books and magazines that he found on the streets. He proceeded to move into the Overtown neighborhood of Miami.Young found himself attracted to a vacant alley called Goodbread Alley, which was named after the Jamaican bakeries that once occupied the street; he would start living there in 1971.In the early 1970s Young found inspiration in the mural movements of Chicago and Detroit, and decided to create a mural of inspiration Overtown.He had never painted before, but inspiration struck and he began to create paintings and nailing them to the boarded up storefronts that formed the alley. He would paint on wood he found on the streets and occasionally paintings would "disappear" from the wall, but Young didn't mind. About two years after starting the mural, tourists started visiting the alley, mainly white tourists. Occasionally Young would sell paintings to visitors - tourists and collectors alike - right off the wall. The mural garnered media attention, including the attention of millionaire Bernard Davis, owner of the Miami Art Museum. Davis became a patron of Young's, providing him with painting supplies as well. Davis died in 1973, leaving Young a local celebrity in Miami
With artistic success came monetary gain, and Young failed to maintain his estate. Before his death he became involved in a legal battle with former manager, Martin Siskind. Young sued Siskind for mismanagement of funds. In response, Siskind successfully petitioned for Young to be declared mentally incompetent and Young's affairs were placed in control of legal guardians. According to friends, Young was not incompetent and was left destitute by the procedures. Siskind stated that he and Young had settled the suit amicably, and that Young retained ownership of 1,000 paintings and was financially stable.Wikipedia
Because he could never afford canvas, Purvis painted on every surface available to him –- discarded plywood and cardboard, refrigerator doors, table tops, scraps of fabric and metal trays– mostly brought to him by scavengers in his neighborhood. He creatively “recycled” long before it was fashionable or profitable.
Though until recently Purvis was confined to a ghetto of another sort- that of “Outsider Art “ – his highly expressionistic work can best be described as “magical realism“. His paintings are populated with angels who watch over turbulent cityscapes, faces reminiscent of an imagined Zulu past, and symbols of freedom and escape – wild horses, trucks, and the flimsy craft of Haitian boat people plowing through shark-infested waters to journey to these shores.
“I see the Monarch Butterfly go from here to Mexico and the wild geese go from here to South America. I look at stuff like that and I say that’s the way I want to be, you know. I want to be free.” Three years in prison will do that to a man, which is the time Purvis spent in jail for breaking and entering in his late teens. “When I was in my cell one night, “ Purvis remembers,” I woke up and the angels came to me and I told ‘em, you know, hey man
this is not my life – and they said they were gonna make a way for me, you know…”(purvisyoungny.com)