High Desert High: Noah’s Arc
The artist Noah Purifoy’s life began in rural Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1917, and ended in Joshua Tree, California, 86 years later. Although farmers, his parents prized education and Purifoy attained a teaching degree. During the early part of his life Purifoy held many jobs including high school teacher (woodshop), sailor, and child-welfare and hospital social worker. But it wasn’t until the 1950s, while living in Los Angeles, that his disenchantment with social work led him to pursue a degree at the prestigious Chinouard School of Art. It was after receiving his BA there that he began to form ideas about art and its role in culture and society that would ultimately inform his life and the lives of others.
Out of affection for Simon Rodia’s outsider art landmark, Purifoy founded the Watts Towers Art Center in the 1960s. The center, a manifestation of his love for both art and teaching, was Purifoy’s gift to the community. In 1965, the Watts riots occurred, and the center was instrumental in holding up a mirror to society through art. Purifoy, associate Judson Powell, and 5 other professional artists, collected the burned remnants of buildings and signs and created art from them; charred and melted, the riot-tortured pieces were reborn as assemblages and toured as an exhibit entitled, ‘Sixty-Six Signs of Neon’. Assemblage had become Purifoy’s preferred artistic expression and along with several other artists working in that medium, became well-known. This statement of Purifoy’s from that time explains his artistic philosophy: “Art of itself is of little value if in its relatedness it does not effect change … a change in the behavior of human beings … through communication … and communication is not possible without the establishment of equality among individuals, one to one.” Although his personal artistic beliefs were more universal, Purifoy was often lumped in with other “Black protest” artists of the time … in spite of this reputation, then-governor Jerry Brown appointed him a founding Member of the California Arts Council. As part of the Council, Purifoy helped institute and fund programs that brought the arts to schools, social programs and institutions … some of these programs continue to this day. Purifoy resigned from the Council in 1987, moving to Joshua Tree.
Purifoy moved to Joshua Tree in search of artistic renewal, having spent at least a decade assisting others to find their artistic selves. His original plan was to use the open space there for ‘earthworks’, large scale, conceptual land-sculptures like those popular at the time. Soon, though, his love for assemblage reemerged and he began to collect the raw materials for what would become his desert masterpiece: an outdoor sculpture garden and installation site. Using the typical detritus of modern times, as well as cast-offs donated by others, Noah Purifoy worked until he died creating the numerous sculptural pieces that people the landscape over several acres. Some of them incorporate ‘earthwork’-type traits in that they are dug out of the desert floor; others seem like abandoned floor plans or ruined buildings; still others are free-standing or interact with each other in groups. Many are larger-than-life, while some are more human-scaled and seem like that odd guest, standing alone although part of a larger gathering … The pieces evoke feelings of sadness, loneliness, sometimes terror … but, there’s also whimsy and a wry sense of humor … there’s a palpable feeling of obsession, an artistic need to communicate with the viewer … all of these qualities are aided and abetted by the artist’s sure hand and this oh-so-still desert setting. It’s not an easy place to find; just know that you’re almost there when you feel totally lost …
I can’t ask him, but I’m almost certain that if I could, Purifoy would say he was surprised that Joshua Tree would be the last stop on his life’s journey … I’m also sure that he would say that it was exactly where he needed to be.
The photo, above, is the façade of a structure at the sculpture garden. I’m including it in this vertical format so that as the reader scrolls down it’s easy to take in the amazing range of materials Purifoy used to create it. There’s everything from tons of tiny seashells to rusted railroad spikes and bits of wood and machine parts … Click on it once, then again for a closer look. Next post: Noah Purifoy’s desert sculpture garden.
Photo of Noah Purifoy by Jim McHugh from noahpurifoy.com