March 31, 2004 by

Noah Sylvester Purifoy

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Categories: Artists, Military

Noah Sylvester Purifoy could take a piece of trash and turn it into artwork worth thousands of dollars.
The African-American sculptor, who was considered the father of the Los Angeles black assemblage movement, used to scour swap meets and garage sales to find the items used in his sculptures. Bowling balls, toilets, old tires and other debris were gathered and erected into towering pieces of art. Purifoy was best known for “66 Signs Neon,” a sculpture he created from 3 tons of debris left over from the 1965 Watts riot. His assemblage art has appeared in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York and the California Afro-American Museum.
Purifoy learned welding, metal and woodworking skills in high school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social science from the Alabama State Teacher’s College, he taught high school shop classes. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a Seabee in the South Pacific.
Purifoy returned to home after the war and received a master’s degree in social work in 1948 from Atlanta University. After moving to Los Angeles, he reconsidered his plan of becoming a social worker. Instead, he applied to the Chinouard School of Art and became the first full-time black student to be admitted.
With the help of several friends, Purifoy co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1965. From 1976 to 1987, he worked for the California Arts Council and brought art to correctional institutions, schools and social programs.
Purifoy moved to the Mojave Desert and spent his remaining years building sculptures. In 1998, he established the Noah Purifoy Foundation to preserve and maintain the 100 pieces of art in his 2.5-acre garden.
Purifoy died on March 5 in a fire. When San Bernardino County firefighters found him inside his home, Purifoy was sitting in his wheelchair with third degree burns on over 90 percent of his body; it is believed he fell asleep while smoking. He was 86.
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One Response to Noah Sylvester Purifoy

  1. Marsha Lewis

    Thanks for doing this for my great uncle. I am proud to be his great niece, and to see that the world has recognized him for his many talents and great big heart!

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