Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (2004), with photography and art direction by W.T. Nelson…
When artist Noah Purifoy died this past March, he left behind a remarkable desert masterwork.
by Kristine McKenna
Noah Purifoy was born in Snow Hill Alabama in 1917. By the time he died this past March in a fire at his home in Joshua Tree, California, he’d traveled many roads and re-invented himself several times.
For a Southern black man of Purifoy’s generation, being an artist wasn’t a readily available option, but Purifoy was a man of remarkable vision and patience. It wasn’t until he was 48 years old that he really got rolling as an artist, but by the time he died 38 years later he’d created a body of work of formidable power. Purifoy was a populist artist, a Surrealist, and a sculptor, and his masterpiece is a parcel of land in Joshua Tree which he landscaped with dozens of massive assemblages. Fashioned largely from scavenged materials, this dazzling environment was created without the help of assistants or interns; Purifoy was a lone wolf, and it was his joy to wake before sunrise and work in the early morning hours under an open sky, before the heat of the day settled in.
The tenth in a family of 13 children, Purifoy was the child of farmers who lived in Birmingham from 1920 until 1929, when they resettled in Cleveland. At the age of 22 Purifoy earned a teaching credential, but his teaching career was interrupted by World War II, which prompted him to enlist in the army in 1942. He was stationed in the South Pacific for three years, and after returning from the war, he earned a master’s degree in social work. He then landed a job at the Cuyahoga County Department of Social Services in Cleveland, where he worked from 1950 to 1952.
Purifoy passed through Los Angeles during the war and he’d always had a hankering to return, so in 1952 he relocated to Southern California. He spent the next two years doing social work at an L.A. county hospital, but the work didn’t suit him. In 1954 he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where he earned a degree in 1956, and he spent the next eight years working in various capacities as an interior designer.
In 1964 Purifoy’s interest in civil rights led him to collaborate with musician Judson Powell and educator Sue Welch in the creation of the Watts Towers Art Center, a community outreach program in South-Central L.A. The next year he found himself in the eye of the hurricane of America’s racial conflict when the Watts riots erupted outside his door. It was at this point that Purifoy finally found his voice and sense of purpose as an artist; Purifoy scavenged three tons of material from the ashes of the Watts uprising and used them to create “66 Signs of Neon,” a massive group show of works created from the Watts’ debris that traveled to nine university galleries from 1966 through 1969.
The show was deemed an enormously successful marriage of art and social protest, but Purifoy found the politics of the art world distasteful, and in 1970 he turned his back on art altogether. Seventeen years later Purifoy’s longtime friend, artist Debbie Brewer, offered him permanent lodging on the land she owned in Joshua Tree, and it was then that Purifoy again felt the itch to make things.
I visited Purifoy at his place in Joshua Tree in August of 1995, and I remember my morning with him fondly. I arrived at sunup and we spent a few hours roaming the land, while Purifoy mused on the marvelous sculptures that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. By 10:30 it was time to get out of the sun and we retreated to the seriously air-conditioned mobile home where Purifoy lived. He prepared lunch, which is to say, he removed nearly everything from his refrigerator, set it all on a small card table, and offered it to his guest. He was a generous and gracious host. I assembled a sandwich, he poured himself a glass of wine, and we talked for a while. These are a few things he told me.
As a child I wasn’t conscious of racism, but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was five, my mother was taking me to the store and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening she said, “That’s the Ku Klux Klan.”
I had good parents who tried to protect me from the trauma they knew I’d encounter soon enough, and they encouraged me to go to school. So in 1939 I earned a teaching credential—not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because that was the only thing accessible to me then. I majored in history and social studies but never taught either—I ended up teaching shop at a school in Montgomery, Alabama.
FROM SOCIAL WORK INTO ART
In the early ‘50s all my friends were social workers and they were horrible people. They thought they owned the earth because they doled out a few dollars to poor people, so one day I just up and quit. Later that same day I was driving and I happened to pass Chouinard Art Institute, and I dropped in and told them I wanted to enroll. This wasn’t something I’d been thinking about – I went in totally on a whim, but they admitted me because I was colored.
I was the worst student in the whole school. I refused to draw, because I felt that I had something and that if I learned to draw I’d be dead because I’d end up making oil paintings, which wasn’t what I was after. I’ve never been satisfied with little things that hang on the wall and I wanted to find my own way in art. I wasn’t making art then but I was posing as an artist. I wore a beret and spent lots of time drinking wine, eating cheese, listening to music and talking to people, and didn’t take any of it too seriously. I was seriously concerned about civil rights though, and I had a dialogue going with some people who shared my feelings about change that had to come.
THE WATTS UPRISING
I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid. I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a goldmine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it. I was searching for my own idea and had been studying the Dada movement and how it had reversed the whole concept of art, and the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course. From 1965 to ’69 I made lots of work, and I sold it as fast as I could make it. I was also reading philosophy then and was knocked out by [Martin] Heidegger and [Edmund] Husserl. I was looking for methods of problem solving because I had lots of problems, and I was able to alter my behavior because of those two philosophers. They were great thinkers who went into areas most people dare not go.
I dropped out of the art world because I was disappointed in art. I perceived art as a tool for change, and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential savior. But the dropout population there increased rather than decreased, and the art I was making started to become formulaic and too easy. I was never interested in earning a lot of money. I wanted art to be a means of answering questions like ‘what is growth?’ ‘What is change?’ Life isn’t worth living unless the individual is pushing to understand more, and art stopped being useful to me in that pursuit.
A lot of the stuff I use to make artwork I buy from a recycling place near here and it’s a horrendous cost—I spend a lot of money on materials. In 1994 a local paper ran a story on me, so I also get lots of calls from people who say ‘I’m cleaning out my garage. Why don’t you bring a truck over and take what you want?’
There’s no ecological message behind my use of recycled materials—I use them because that’s what’s available to me. People occasionally comment on how hard it must it must be living out in the desert by myself, but this is a breeze compared to many things I’ve been through. The most difficult period of my life was when I was a young adult. I was raised in the church and as a teenager I found myself in conflict about sex and religion. I gave up religion—and leaving the church didn’t hurt me at all.
Sometimes I wish I had a savior because I don’t know what happens after death, but I do know I don’t believe in heaven. I recently made a series of works called ‘Desert Tombstones,’ and while I was working on them I thought a lot about death. It’s been said that if you don’t accept death as an equal part of existence you’re in for trouble somewhere down the line. I’d never given much thought to any of this because I thought I’d live forever, but I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. That may have something to do with why I push myself so hard now to finally get the work out that’s always been in me.
Noah Purifoy: http://www.noahpurifoy.com/