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From prison to painter to people: Westport’s Museum of Contemporary Art showcases works of Purvis Young

Nina Bowens ’25
“This is the Life I See” will run through Dec 30, 2023 at Westport’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

What separates a prison and an art gallery? The two share more than you might expect. Concrete floors, blank walls, open rooms and a home for artist Purvis Young’s multimedia works.   

Young was born in 1943 in Overtown, Florida, an epicenter of African-American entertainment in Miami and a former designated black neighborhood in the segregated South. He lived there until his death in 2010. In his teens, Young was sent to prison for three years for breaking and entering; there, he began channeling his frustration into art, highlighting issues such as racism, poverty and violence that plagued his childhood.  Upon his release, Young took inspiration from the Chicago and Detroit anti-Vietnam War murals to launch himself into a professional career.  

“Purvis Young is an outsider artist, and what I mean by an outsider artist is that he was not really formally trained in the art world,” MoCa’s Executive Director, Ruth Mannes said. 

Young faced poverty once he left prison and was forced to create his art with materials he found. This allowed him to stand out among the successful artists of the time who relied on expensive materials and refined technique to create their works.

“Young used crates or wooden objects and he made [his art] sort of sculptural,” Mannes said. 

These materials make up thousands of large-scale multimedia works which have been shown globally. Now, they have reached Westport through the collection of Jack and Lynne Dodick. Longtime residents of Weston, the Dodicks are avid collectors of fine art with a collection of over 36 works by Young and they have generously loaned them to Westport’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCa). 

“[Young’s pieces were] in the Dodick’s basement in storage and they had never shown them before,” Mannes said. “So I was blown away. Young’s [works] are at the Smithsonian and are collected by hundreds of collectors across the country… It was so important that we brought it to MoCA.” 

Anyone can see that Young’s work is technically complex and visually striking, but many of Young’s works have meaning beyond their artistic merit. This meaning comes from Young’s poverty-stricken past and it resonates with viewers. 

“If you come and see the work you will see how amazing and transformative it is,” Mannes said. “The work speaks for itself. We are very honored to have this here at MoCA.” 

The exhibition runs through Dec. 29, and it is regarded as one of MoCa’s most important shows yet.

If you come and see the work you will see how amazing and transformative it is. The work speaks for itself. We are very honored to have this here at MoCA.

— MoCa’s Executive Director, Ruth Mannes

MoCA has been a cornerstone of the Fairfield County arts community for over 50 years. Formerly known as the Westport Arts Center, MoCa underwent a massive expansion to bring diverse programming and shows to its new home at 19 Newtown Turnpike. MoCa is home to an expansive permanent collection as well as unique exhibitions which rotate seasonally. MoCa also hosts weekly events, fostering community through performances, classes, lectures and more. 

While MoCa hosts events for all ages, they pay particular attention to local teens, looking to grow their engagement and a love of the arts among local high schoolers. 

“MoCa has a teen counsel here and they are really always out there,” Mannes said. “They come to all of our openings, they do a lot of work here and they also showcase their own art.” 

To celebrate the contributions of teenagers to MoCa’s community, they hold an annual exhibition guided by a new theme each year. It features work submitted by teenagers from throughout the tri-state area. 

“The work always blows us away. The students will create based on the theme, usually its political, this year it’s based on icons,” Mannes said. “So if you have a favorite icon you want to do some body of work for, it can be film, it can be photography, painting, drawing, even sewing.” 

Creativity is unlimited for these student exhibitions, and they provide a rare opportunity for teens of all skill levels to show their work on a professional level.

Young’s work draws a surprising but striking similarity to the teenagers’ work. Due to personal motivation and passion, a lack of formal training has no effect on the value of the work. This idea is pushed forward by Mannes and the MoCa staff at large. 

“No matter how famous or celebrated an artist [that] we show in our museum [is], like Purvis Young, we will always come back to the teen exhibition,” Mannes said. “They are the root of what we do, giving a voice to the next generation of artists who might just be having a show of their own at MoCa a few decades down the road.”


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About the Contributors
Zoe Boxenbaum '25
Zoe Boxenbaum '25, Broadcast Director
Zoe Boxenbaum ’25 has always been musically-inclined. At 9-years-old, she learned to play a variety of instruments from the electric bass to the piano. Now, as Broadcast Director for Inklings, Boxenbaum uses her musicality to connect with her school community.  “Being musical helps me appreciate and seek out other people’s unique talents,” she said.  Boxenbaum was drawn to broadcast journalism because of her desire to tell stories that are interactive, rather than simply written on paper. “Broadcasts allow people to show their skills, instead of just talking about them,” Boxenbaum said. “Musicians, for example, are given the chance to play.” 
Nina Bowens ’25
Nina Bowens ’25, On The Wreckord Producer
On The Wreckord Producer Nina Bowens ’25 has had a passion for producing and editing long before joining Inklings.  “I have a love for acting and on-camera work from my childhood,” Bowens said. “When I was little, I used to use Imovie and make youtube videos and not post them, and I just fell in love with editing.”  Bowens wanted a creative outlet where she could write articles and make videos when she joined Inklings, but she found a sense of belonging too.  “I love the friendships I have made here,” Bowens said. “It truly is a special environment.”

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