“I make art. I don’t do maintenance.”
“We make a foundation. Now we do maintenance.”
—Sue Welsh, NPF Co-Founder
It’s not difficult to understand the depth and breadth of these two quotes when standing on Blair Lane in Joshua Tree California, looking out over the scores of artworks—from monumental to human scale, built by Noah Purifoy during a sixteen-year period that populate the ten-acre site of the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Also, the immense challenges facing the Foundation as well. Sometimes you can feel Noah’s presence working in seamless collaboration with the robust environment of the High desert—his oft-cited partner in the creative process. Noah was seventy-two years old when he moved to the desert.
In 1997, Sue Welsh, a former public school teacher, longtime friend, and representative suggested she create a foundation to preserve Noah’s work and legacy. Initially, he opposed the idea of a Foundation, recognizing what such an organizational effort would involve. He wanted to focus on making art. However, in late 1998, Noah embraced the idea because the Foundation’s goals would advance the genre of assemblage sculpture and his views on the fundamental principles of the creative process as a “problem-solving methodology”—the essence of communication conceived by intellect and emotion; and a life-long investigation respectively.
Assuring Noah that she would assume all the initial tasks, develop a group of Trustees, and continue to support his ongoing work, in 1999, Sue with Noah established the Noah Purifoy Foundation (NPF), as a 501©3 non-profit private foundation. NPF has remained an all-volunteer organization ever since.
Subsequently and ironically, Noah sent Sue his original IRS application for non-profit status for “Joined for the Arts,” the support basis for his seminal exhibition, 66 Signs of Neon, a collaborative project made with detritus salvaged from the 1965 Watts Riots. First installed at Markham Junior High School where Sue Welsh taught. It traveled to many venues in America.
NPF’s goals are to preserve and maintain Noah Purifoy’s existing works of art and make the ten-acre Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture available for public engagement and educational programs. The Foundation provides visitors with a coherent explanation of the museum project and its ongoing development. NPF also organized his archives, supports research opportunities for national and international artists, curators and scholars to study his oeuvre; with the ultimate goal of securing Noah’s place in American Art History.
Artist, theorist, and community artist, Noah Purifoy was an anomaly in the art world. Coming to art-making later in life with a passion and vision whose contributions and sizable cultural imprint are just receiving the attention they deserve in an art world long in the tooth but short in diversity.
Noah’s life story is just as rugged as the Mojave Desert territory he eventually changed with art. Born in 1917 at the height of Jim Crow, in Snow Hill Alabama, a town that has no national census data; he sought out higher education, received a B.A. degree, taught industrial arts in high school, and then enlisted in the Navy during WWII as a Sea Bee. After the war he returned to university for a graduate degree in Social Work; eventually, plying his training in Los Angeles. Encumbered by race and social quicksand, Noah’s curiosity and determination are worthy, in and of itself, of multiple volumes.
Disillusioned with “social work,” Noah left work one day and enrolled in Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) becoming its first African American student, and received a BFA, his third degree. His involvement with the arts is multifarious. He was a maker, and his work influenced the likes of David Hammons, John Outterbridge, and Senga Nengudi. As a co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center (with Judson Powell), and a founding member of California Arts Council(CAC), he initiated ideas we now call “social practice;” authoring arts-education programs in Watts, and Artist in Prisons, Schools, and Communities for the CAC. However, his ideas about “the creative process,” the intellectual glue that held all of his activities together, still need full annotating
With the financial and engaged support of a dedicated board of trustees over two decades, NPF has successfully raised critical and public recognition of Noah’s work. LACMA’s 2015 retrospective and excellent catalog, “Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada,” by Franklin Sirmans and Yael Lipshutz and was a watershed moment. Named one of the ten best museum exhibitions of the year by the New York Times, it renewed interest in Noah and the Joshua Tree site and introduced him to new audiences. Other exhibitions like, “Soul of a Nation,” “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles,” and the California African-American Museum’s early retrospective, “Noah Purifoy: Outside and in the Open,” continue to illuminate his contributions and importance to the art world.