“Bandwagon” (1995) in foreground, with “Old Volks at Home” (1994) and “Untitled, Noah’s Ark” (1992) in the background, left to right. Photo courtesy of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.

Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) was an important and well-known figure in Los Angeles. He was an artist, an activist, a social worker and an educator. In 1965, he used burned-out debris from the Watts riots to create what would become his best-known sculptural assemblage.

Born in poverty to sharecroppers in Snow Hill, Ala., he was one of 13 siblings. During World War II, he served with the United States Navy as a Seabee, and in 1953, he became the first African American to enroll at Chouinard Art Institute (now called CalArts) as a full-time student. He earned his BFA in 1956.

In 1989, Purifoy moved to a friend’s trailer Joshua Tree—and the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art would be born. The museum today occupies 10 acres, and includes hundreds of his assemblage sculptures, keeping alive his legacy of social activism. The museum was recently accepted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation into its prestigious Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program.

Purifoy’s museum is one of seven the HAHS program selected this year. These preserved homes and studios of American artists represent the diversity of America, and show how a house or a studio is imbued with an artist’s creativity. Such sites attract more than a million visitors each year, demonstrating their importance as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

“We are incredibly pleased at being acknowledged,” said Joseph Lewis, president of the Noah Purifoy Foundation and an art professor at UC Irvine. “It opens us up to a whole new audience that gives us more prominence as a national organization.”

Laura Esparza, a member of the HAHS Advisory Committee, described her feelings while visiting the Purifoy Museum. “My first feeling was surprise,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the site before I went there. It was a quest to find it; I took a lot of back roads to get there, but it was well worth it. I was blown away, moved to tears. The four hours flew by.”

Purifoy moved from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in 1989, because he needed the space offered by the desert to make the monumental works that he wanted to create—and also because the city was becoming too expensive.

“There was just sky, flat earth and cacti,” Esparza said. “He found his utopia, his happy life. He created a lot; it seemed like the objects were found there in the desert. They didn’t have a reason to be there, but he did have intent. Everything came together to tell a story, sometimes humorous.”

Purifoy used everyday objects in his works. “It ignites things in our head, people stepping out of their traditional paths,” he once said. “Junk art, assemblage art … it’s as close to human existence, because it’s all the castoffs we are utilizing here. I won’t say that assemblage art is much like life itself, but it’s closer to existence than any other art form. Because it’s your shit that we’re remodeling … and you got rid of it.”

While walking among Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures, one may, at first, feel like they’re in a junk yard, surrounded by tires, bathroom fixtures and ragged clothing—but each piece has a story to tell. For example, one installation has a water fountain labeled “White” beside a toilet—which is mounted as a drinking fountain and labeled “Colored.” In 1971, Purifoy said, “The problem of race in this country is not socio-economical; it is psycho-morality.”

Lewis pointed out that many artists of color did not have access to the mainstream art world in the ’80s and ’90s, and Purifoy worked to change that, initiating many programs using art. As one of the earliest members of the California Arts Council, he helped initiate programs to bring art into communities including the state prison system. Lewis, who knew Purifoy, described him as an intense person, not one for small talk, who would not compromise his values—and who always stayed true to his art.

The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art is located at 63030 Blair Lane, in Joshua Tree. For more information, visit www.noahpurifoy.com.

Cat Makino

Catherine Makino is a multimedia journalist who was based in Tokyo for 22 years. She wrote for media sources including Thomson Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inter Press Service, the Los Angeles...

2 replies on “An Artistic Legacy: The National Trust for Historic Preservation Celebrates Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum”

  1. This article reminds me “That one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.”
    Another well written and enjoyable article by Cat Makino

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