The Florida Highwaymen
In the early 1950’s through the 1980’s a group of twenty-six African-American artists painted beautiful landscapes that displayed the serene, undeveloped Florida landscape of their time. They were from Fort Pierce, Florida and later became known as the "Highwaymen". The 26 painters (all men except for one woman, MaryAnn Carroll) latched onto art as a way to escape a more grueling fate: picking or crating oranges in the local groves.
The Highwaymen is a moniker that Jim Fitch, a promoter who is fascinated by what he calls Florida’s Art Tradition, assigned to the group in 1994. He often came across Highwaymen paintings, in thrift stores, yard sales, and the like, and recognized that something special had happened. The newly bestowed name ruffled some feathers but folks seem to have accepted that it was the perfect choice to get the ball rolling. Their artwork was primal and raw depicting idyllic views of the Florida landscape, before rampant development would reconfigure the state's topography forever. The Highwaymen saved money by painting on inexpensive Upson board and framed the works using white crown molding. On the weekends the artists would travel and sell their paintings to hotels, offices, businesses and individuals who appreciated the artwork for around $25 a piece.
The birth of the Highwaymen can be traced to 1954 in Fort Pierce, Fla., when a young African-American painter named Harold Newton met an established white painter named Albert "Beanie" Backus. Backus encouraged Newton to paint landscapes, and the young man eagerly obliged. Another African-American painter, Alfred Hair, began studying under Backus and for the next few years, Hair, Newton and a widening circle of associates produced Florida landscapes.
The Highwaymen artists knew they could make a living painting, but they knew they had to be different. Mr. Backus was a prominent white artist and could sell his paintings for hundreds of dollars in galleries and shows; no gallery would show the work of unknown, self-taught African-Americans. This is why they sold the paintings for only $25 each and traveled along the coast of Florida selling their artwork on the side of the road, to tourists, hotel chains and local patrons. Taking their artistic cues from Backus, the painters often worked with a heavy palette knife to create the swaying palms, shifting skies and crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Scenes of marshes, birds, boats, moss-laden trees and the St. John's River were also popular.
Before long, the work of the Highwaymen began to appear on the walls of homes, offices, banks, shops and restaurants. Over the years, all of the Highwaymen developed and refined their own personal styles, ranging from surrealism to realism to impressionism. But the Florida folk art they created in the '50s is what is now generating such attention, especially among collectors. Even though they worked on their artwork as a group each painting was done by an individual artist. There was never a school or movement. These artists didn’t even have studios. They worked in their backyards “like shade-tree mechanics,” offers Mary Ann. In fact, there really were no Highwaymen, just an amorphous group of friends who found an alternative to toiling in the nearby fields and packing houses. The Highwaymen wanted to create art but they also needed to make money. To make up for the cheaper prices they were charging they would paint up to ten paintings in the time it would take Backus to paint just one.
The artists often got together to paint through the night. These were good times. According to James Gibson "It wasn’t unusual for an artist to make ten, even twenty, paintings at a stretch". Alfred even lifted weights to be able to paint without tiring. James challenged himself to make a hundred paintings in a twenty four hour marathon. His ubiquitous two color landscapes were the end result. Since the artists rushed, flaws were not unusual. Nor is it unusual to see smudged paintings. Highwaymen frames were constructed from crown molding that was designed as door, window and floorboard trim. At nine cents a foot it was more practical than buying frame molding strips. The standard sizes facilitated stacking the paintings for transport but occasionally paintings would bump and smudge.
Al Black said “Alfred could paint as good as he wanted and as fast as he wanted.” He preferred his production mode. The artists played a kind of game in which money was the way to keep score. Alfred wanted to be a millionaire by his thirty fifth birthday and having a Cadillac was his interim goal. All those painters who wanted the status-symbol car had them. So they had to paint fast and paint a lot! Collecting Highwayman art has become an exciting, but often expensive, hobby. Like with many forms of collecting, the thrill is in the hunt, and with something so steeped in lore and anecdotal history as this genre, it is particularly frustrating and potentially exhilarating for collectors to pursue even the tiniest of leads.
People in central Florida, along the coast from Palm Beach to Ormond Beach, dream of finding an original work at a garage sale or thrift store. But by now, most everyone in the region is aware of the values. In spite of the scarcity, hobbyists continue to travel the highways in search of Highwaymen art. Which is ironic. The Highwaymen -- who worked so hard to ply their trade with their makeshift roadside art galleries -- can now sit back while a whole new generation of "highwaymen" (the people who are scouring the shows, sales and flea markets) pursue their hobby and enhance their collections. Ironically, the Highwaymen still living can sit back, relax and reap the rewards of their labor (monetary and otherwise).