He found Purvis Young in 1992, sitting on a milk crate under a Miami overpass, sketching. Young never drove or had a driver's license but instead would bike around Overtown, stopping to draw people he saw on the streets. In the process, he had documented the riots of the early '80s, the burning of Liberty City and O-town. And when Larry Clemons walked up for the first time to the overweight African-American hunched over a sketchpad, he told Young, "What you're doing is happening in every city in this country, and you chronicling this has ramifications nationwide." And then he took Young to a doctor.
Purvis Young, 67, died this morning of a heart attack at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Perhaps the most famous South Florida artist, Young had only left Miami once before his featured artist exhibition at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where his sketches,
found-object constructions, and expertly colored urban landscapes captivated a national audience. Museums began collecting his mixed-media pieces; galleries began selling his richly hued paintings. But Young's refuge remained yards away from the railroad tracks of Progresso Drive in Fort Lauderdale, where Clemons was transforming a building into Gallery 721 -- an art bungalow that would soon house the Purvis Young Museum -- and Young painted.
"He had a green recliner that he would put at the front door, and I would close it with a metal gate, and he loved to sit there at night," Clemons says. "He called that 'free air.'" Clemons, who has helped Young sell prints since 1992 and opened the museum in 2001, was first drawn to Young's work by a beautiful painting of horses. "Horses represent freedom, because they were free to roam the plains before the fences went up." Clemons respected Young's talent for color, likening his brushstrokes and artistic approach to the abstract style of Peter Max, whom Clemons began collecting at 16. So when a buddy told Clemons that he could find Young under a Miami overpass, he went.
Because it was obvious that Young had liver issues among other health problems, Clemons took him to his first doctor, "in the old Cuban embassy." Clemons paid the bills until the doctor took a look at Young's paintings; from then on, Young exchanged art for medical attention to his diabetes. Ahead was a kidney transplant and years of dialysis. Clemons preached to Young's priest caretaker and to his girlfriend to keep Young off of greasy food. "I tried to help the best I could, but it's like Purvis would say: 'I'm an old dog. It's hard to teach me new tricks.'"
But slowly, Clemons says, Young "realized he wanted to live." At the 1996 Olympics, Clemons worked closely with Young. He lobbied for more coverage. He cut Young's hair. And when the two men walked up to "Souls Grow Deep," the exhibit where Young was featured, 4,000 people had gathered, "and they were just blown away by Purvis' artwork," Clemons says. "He said, 'Larry, I didn't know this many people liked my artwork.' And I said, 'Purvis, you have no idea.' That's when he started to say, 'I want to live; I want more of this.'"
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In his final years, Young lived in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair. His body was weak, Clemons says, from the kidney transplant, years of dialysis, and high blood pressure. He hadn't painted on wood, a trademark of his, in over two years. When the cardiac arrest came, he couldn't outlive it.
"The greatest thing that happened was that in the last 15 years of his life, Purvis really got to enjoy the fact that other people loved him and loved his art. He could've been down in Miami, in Overtown, and only known by the few that lived around him. But he became an international artist," Clemson says.
"He knows that he was blessed, and I really believe that Purvis lived a good life. A hard life. But Purvis' life."