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ART : The Desert Pack Rat : At 78, Noah Purifoy is finally able to devote himself full time to his art: building massive assemblages made from discarded materials in the Mojave Desert.

August 27, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — It isn't 9 a.m. yet, but it's already 98 degrees in this desert community, where Noah Purifoy settled in 1989. The 78-year-old native of Snow Hill, Ala., who has devoted the bulk of his life to social work, settled here on land owned by his longtime friend, artist Debbie Brewer, figuring that was the only way to get his overhead low enough to allow him to make a full-time commitment to art.

Purifoy earned a bachelor of fine arts at the Chouinard Art Institute in 1956 but could never quite figure out how to make a living in the arts, so he spent the next 20 years at a series of art-related jobs--interior designer, window dresser, art educator. In 1976, he was appointed to the California Arts Council, a gig that was to occupy him for the next 11 years, but when he left the council in 1987, he knew the time had come to face the muse he'd been flirting with all his life. So he moved to the desert and got to work.

The fruits of that decision are visible everywhere you look on the 2 1/2 acres of parched land he occupies here. An inveterate pack rat who spends much of his time scavenging recyclable materials, Purifoy uses everything from bowling balls and old clothes to used appliances, coins and discarded food containers to create towering assemblages.

Known as an influence on the acclaimed artist David Hammond, Purifoy's work is rarely seen locally. It is currently on view in a group show at the California Afro-American Museum and at Tara's Hall, a house in the Wilshire District that's been transformed into an art gallery by Purifoy's friends, Sue and Tara Welch. However, to have the full Purifoy experience, one must visit him in Joshua Tree, where about 100 massive assemblages pepper the land surrounding the mobile home in which he lives.

Purifoy made this formidable body of work without the aid of an assistant. He hasn't a tooth in his head, but otherwise he's in incredibly good shape--as one must be in order to survive out here. During the blazing summer months, he spends much of the day in a jerry-built studio equipped with a swamp cooler, venturing outdoors at dusk or dawn, when it is not unusual for him to spend several hours struggling to get a large component of an even larger piece into place.

Why has he developed such a physically arduous method of art-making? "I've never been satisfied with little things that hang on the wall," he replies.

The road that's taken Purifoy from rural Alabama to the Mojave Desert is a strange one. Today, he says it's clear that it was his destiny to be an artist, but it took him a long time to come to grips with that fate. Purifoy, the 10th of 13 children, says that his parents were farmers who moved to Birmingham when he was 3, then finally settled in Cleveland when he was 12.

"As a child I wasn't conscious of racism," he recalls, "but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was 5, my mother was taking me to the store and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening she said, 'That's the Ku Klux Klan.'

"I had good parents who tried to protect me from the trauma they knew I'd encounter soon enough, and they encouraged me to go to school," he continues. "So in 1939 I earned a teaching credential--not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because that was the only thing accessible to me then. I majored in history and social studies but never taught either--I ended up teaching shop at a school in Montgomery, Ala."

Purifoy's teaching career was interrupted in 1942 when he enlisted in the Army and was stationed in the South Pacific for three years. After returning from the war, he earned a master's degree in social work, then landed a job at the Cuyahoga County Department of Social Services in Cleveland, where he worked from 1950 to 1952. While in the Army, Purifoy had passed through Los Angeles and had a hankering to return, so in 1952 he moved to L.A. and supported himself for the next two years doing social work at a county hospital.

"All my friends were social workers then, and they were horrible people," he recalls with a laugh. "They thought they owned the Earth because they doled out a few dollars to poor people, so one day I just up and quit. Later that same day I was driving and I happened to pass Chouinard, and I dropped in and told them I wanted to enroll. This wasn't something I'd been thinking about--I went in totally on a whim, but they admitted me because I was colored.

"I was the worst student in the whole school. I refused to draw, because I felt I had something and that if I learned to draw I'd be dead, because I'd end up making oil paintings, which wasn't what I was after. I wanted to find my own way in art."

Leaving Chouinard with a degree in 1956, Purifoy spent eight years working in various capacities as an interior designer.

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