Purvis Young murals: Northside Station Metrorail and Culmer/Overtown Branch Library, Miami-Dade Public Library

Walking into Gibson Park via the oval entrance is an experience that immediately engages the senses. Roosters patrol the area, their heads held high, chests tall, eagerly awaiting snacks to fall to their level. As you venture further, a vibrant tableau of activity unfolded before me. Older men playing chess games on card tables, children in floaties running to the splash pad, the high-pitched whistles of a water polo match resonating from the pool, and the full-pad football practice on the field all making for a buzzing atmosphere of a hot and humid Saturday afternoon.

In stark contrast, I had just taken the Metrorail down to Overtown from the Northside Station, where I embarked on a self-guided tour of Purvis Young’s murals and public commissions. The difference between the train station and the park murals could not have been more profound. As I ascended the escalator, the view of the mural was affected by the harsh interplay of light and shadow, with sections of the painting dappled by the sun. A gentle breeze filled the space, and time seemed to slow down, offering a stark contrast to Young’s vibrant depiction of Miami’s bustling city life. The chaotic street created a symphony of unrelenting traffic, where cars and trucks weaved through the labyrinth, ignoring conventional lanes. Nothing separates the trucks from the train tracks, the pedestrians that dart in and out of gaps. He captures the essence of urban life, the energy of many figures in motion. A brief respite in this urban frenzy was found in a herd of majestic horses, symbolizing power and freedom, which seemed to claim their own space.

These are the lasting memories of his public work after the dismantling of Goodbread Alley. On an alley of abandoned bakeries from 1971-74, he aimed to recreate a Miami version of “The Wall of Respect” in Chicago. This mural depicted heroic Black figures that were created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Young’s version was a massive patchwork mural of collaged paintings he made with materials salvaged from around the neighborhood—hundreds of paintings extended from the sidewalk to the rooftops. From the start, these buildings were condemned, a sacrifice to the construction of Interstate Highway 95. 

Returning to Gibson Park, amid the frenzy of everyday life, I encountered Young’s mural titled Everyday Life, 1984, painted on the exterior of the Culmer/Overtown Library. This mural is essential to understanding the wellspring of inspiration behind much of Young’s work. The library played an indispensable role in his artistic journey. He spent countless days in the Miami-Dade Public Libraries, poring over books on Vincent van Gogh, Delacroix, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. There, he meticulously studied their gestures, creating small expressionistic paintings in the library, which were pasted into notebooks. This endeared him to librarians like Barbara Young, who mounted exhibitions of his works and applied for grants on his behalf. Young’s greatest work of art, this mural, remains free and open to the community from which he drew so much inspiration. 

Young utilized every inch of the library’s walls. The mural began to feel like a theatrical backdrop, with the most prominent wall serving as an atmospheric tableau, transporting the audience into another realm. As I moved around the corner, the walls zigzagged off the building, revealing various scenes that depict an unfolding story. Some themes from Young’s other mural, such as the congestion of constant traffic, were also evident here. However, with more space, he elongated and exaggerated the figures, illustrating how collectively they were more significant than the buildings and the city they inhabited. Yet, despite the ambiguous figures’ size, their power appeared fragile, as the blue-green orbs and omnipresent pair of white eyes persistently monitored them.

Around another corner of the mural, Young elevated the mundane elements of daily existence, infusing them with heightened beauty and the challenges of confinement. He connected deeply with Overtown, a place teeming with people striving for unity. In this section, two panels depicted a reversal of roles: athletes in jerseys cheered from the sidelines as everyday people played and danced, momentarily transcending the weight of work. He often spoke of his love of sports, playing in the projects as one of the only things that could be done to pass the time. Young painted them with a hasty, brushy,  sure style, twisting faceless silhouettes into graceful new forms. The joy in the dancing figures was palpable, and the mural transcends time. This could be any time, any day, in Gibson Park, all around us. 

This is the culmination of Young’s life. The men, the women, the freedom, the poor, the soldiers, the police, the trucks, and the train tracks. The church and the park. Rembrandt and Gauguin. He painted people and places with problems, people and places that floated up above it all as heavenly angels despite being burdened by the weight of the world. Young’s work is a testament to the enduring power of art and the ability to find beauty even in the mundane.