BAIA BITS: Noah Purifoy
“We are convinced the Negro can no longer exist, as he has, with the disadvantages which separate him from the rest of society, deprive him of employment, and cause him to drift aimlessly through life. This, we feel, represents a crisis in our country.”
This was just one of the conclusions of the 101-page report entitled Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?: A Report by the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, 1965. It was certainly not news to the millions of African Americans across the country enduring the harsh racial disparities of American life in the realms of housing, employment, and education.
The report—released on December 2, 1965 and referred to as the “McCone Report”— depicts the violent events on the evening of August 11, 1965 when a 21-year-old African-American man was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer for reckless driving. The incident escalated as witnesses reported that the police roughed up the motorist and members of his family, including his mother, before arresting them. Violence broke out between law enforcement and the growing crowd of witnesses and, for six days, the area erupted into the destructive event we now know as the Watts Rebellion.
As a result of the violence, artist, activist, and educator, Noah Purifoy, was one of several area leaders who offered a creative response of their own. While the fires continued to burn, Purifoy and fellow artist, Judson Powell, took to the streets and, from the smoldering ashes, extracted three tons of debris including warped metal, charred wood, and melted neon signs. The two men put out a call to six area artists to interpret the salvaged materials within the context of the rebellion. The result was 66 Signs of Neon, an art exhibition later characterized by the Noah Purifoy Foundation as “dominated by assemblages of artifacts of the Watts riots (August 1965); as a one-to-one format of communication between individuals who otherwise would not or could not communicate; as an evolving system of philosophy.” While the McCone Report highlighted joblessness, housing, and insufficient schools, Purifoy and Powell focused on the lack of artistic and creative outlets for young people.
A longtime Los Angeles-area resident and creative collector of junk and found objects, Purifoy graduated from Atlanta University in 1948 before earning a BFA from the school now known as CalArts in 1956. Just prior to the rebellion, Purifoy opened the Watts Towers Art Center, serving his community as its director. His artistic focus on found objects would ultimately influence other prominent artists like John Outterbridge and David Hammons.
In the 1980s, Purifoy launched Artists in Social Institutions, which put art into the state prison system, before relocating to the Joshua Tree area near the Mojave desert. There, he created ten acres of massive sculptures on the desert floor entirely from junked materials. This effort is commonly recognized as one of California’s great artistic wonders.
Noah Purifoy died in Joshua Tree, California, in 2004. The Noah Purifoy Foundation continues to promote his work and maintain his desert site as a cultural center and sculpture park open to the public.
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