Al Black's Prison Murals:
The Icing on the Highwaymen Cake

by: Gary Monroe

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Fall 09 - Winter 10

Al Black had been an entrepreneurial artist, part of a group of like-minded painters that had no name, just a shared calling. These young African-Americans worked in anonymity because it was safer to do so back then. They wisely drew attention to their paintings rather than to themselves as they showered the state with of their interpretations of Florida-as-Paradise during the 1960 and 1970s.

 

Black was not only one of the painters, but he was also the group’s chief salesman; business was so brisk that a sales team was needed. He was a brilliant and likeable salesman; selling was his forte. By the mid-90s the group was named The Highwaymen. But as their contribution to Florida’s art and history was being established, Black fell to drugs and would spend a dozen years behind bars for fraud. Word got around that a celebrity of sorts was at home in the prison. Black asked the warden to allow him to paint, and was granted permission. The warden saw potential benefits coming from these paintings; indeed, inspiration which the inmates drew from the art fostered a reevaluation of their own lives.

Cheered on by staff and inmates alike, Black altered the cold cinder block environment. It became a place in which people spoke reverentially, under the heartening glow of his landscapes. He completed 90 murals, many of which are the size of a truck. Al Black and the DOC have given the prisoners an improved habitat that just might offer solace during bad days and stimulate the possibilities of better days ahead. They display a fresh idea of the transformative power of art.

Gary Monroe is a professor of art at Daytona State College. He is the author of the three seminal books about the Highwaymen: The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters (2001), Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman (2007), and The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams (2009). Please visit his Web site www.garymonroe.net – for more information about the Highwaymen (under Folk Art). He welcomes your comments and questions, which can be emailed through the site.

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