by Gary Monroe
spite of the Highwaymens soaring popularity during the
past few years, misinformation still exists that hampers appreciating
the artists and, ostensibly, the last great-untold tale of modern
Florida. The basics are these: the Highwaymen were black youths
from Fort Pierce, Florida, who, during the late 1950s and early
'60s, taught themselves to paint Florida scenes in the manner
of A.E. Backus, an established white artist of the time. They
sold their framed oils from the trunks of their cars, mainly
along the states east coast.
24 X 36 inches, oil on canvas.
Livingston Roberts. Courtesy of Henry Bosma.
September of 1998, wanting to learn more, I met with Mary Ann
Carroll (the only female of the group), James Gibson and Hezekiah
Baker. I was amazed by their stories. Newsletter articles about
the Highwaymen didnt jibe with what I was hearing so I
embarked on finding out what happened to give rise to their 100,000
plus paintings and what it might mean. I subsequently identified
and interviewed all but a few of the artists (three are deceased,
some have moved away). I count twenty six Highwaymen, who are
listed and discussed in my book.
Contrary to the accepted myth
that claims their paintings were pieced together by uncaring
hands, by bird, water and tree specialists, the artists,
according to Roy McLendon, each painted their own pictures.
This is corroborated by the others. And, there was never a school
or movement. These artists didnt 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 is a moniker
that Jim Fitch, a promoter who is fascinated by what he calls
Floridas Art Tradition, assigned to the group in 1994.
He often came across Highwaymen paintings in thrift stores,
yard sales, and the like and recognizedthat 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. To a few people the name conjured images
of stagecoach robbers while to others it was met with resistance
because it wasnt their choice. Perhaps fair claims, but
Jims instincts catapulted interest in the story and the
24 X 36 inches, oil on Upson board. Alfred Hair. Courtesy
Mr. & Mrs. Geoff Cook
Jim's primary concern was not the Highwaymen
aesthetic, which is central to mine, but commerce. It would be
naive to think about the Highwaymen solely as artists. Their
modus operandi was about making money. Alfred Hair knew it wasnt
likely hed gain the acceptance or have the success Backus
enjoyed. (Hair was the only painter of the group trained by Backus.)
So, instead of charging a price in accord with a Backus canvas,
of say $250, he opted to charge $25 and make up for the shortfall
with quantity. He made ten paintings in less time than it took
Backus to complete a single painting. Speed yielded a new style.
Fast painting led to the distinguishing characteristics
of their art, which the Highwaymen arrived at by corrupting the
classical pictorial strategies Backus so well incorporated.
Since making money, not art,
was their goal, the Highwaymen needed to shower the state with
their paintings. And they did! The artists often got together
to paint through the night. These were good times. It wasnt
unusual for an artist to make ten, even twenty, paintings at
a stretch. James Gibson told me Alfred had 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 resulted.
x 24 inches oil on canvas, "Glades Glory," 1970. A.E.
"Bean" Backus. Painting compliments of the A.E. Backus
Gallery & Museum, Ft. Pierce, Florida (C). Included here
to illustrate the influence Backus had on this group of painters.
To maximize profits, the artists painted
on inexpensive Upson boards, a roofers sheeting product.
The quarter-inch 4' x 8' sheets were easily cut into waste-free
sizes, typically four 2' x 3' pieces (the Highwaymens signature
size) with the remaining piece cut in some combination of 2'
x 3', 12 x 24 and 18 x 24 or left as
is, 2' x 4'. The boards were shellacked, painted on, and sold
before the oils had time to dry.
Since the artists rushed,
flaws were not unusual. I saw a Mary Ann Carroll seascape on
which (presumably) her bright yellow fingerprint floated in an
equally bright blue sky. 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, who
entered the Highwaymen as a salesman, says that he learnt
[to paint] by fixing them. A painting wasnt finished
until it was sold.
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! With wads of dough in their pockets,
everything was going better than planned. But, in 1970, Alfred
was murdered. He was twenty nine years old. We originally were
told he took a stray bullet in a barroom brawl. In fact, he was
shot at close range over a woman. He left six children and a
cottage industry which defined a time and place.
Business remained brisk. The
artists prevailed during the '70s, selling their paintings "door
to door and store to store." Shop owners and professionals
were their best customers. There were lots of empty walls to
fill. Prices were set by calculating the daily pay of a blue-collar
worker. The larger paintings, at $25 or $35, werent necessarily
cheap, but they were affordable, and, to many, irresistible.
Curtis Arnett points out, People waited for us to come
The Highwaymens facile
process yielded images that seem to be lingering memories from
having glanced at an expanse of land through the window of a
vacation bound car. In this way, to sojourners, Florida-in-passing
looked sketchy, half realized ripe for people to lend
their own meanings. The transitory nature of Highwaymen imagery
yielded an intimacy that would be lost to a more formal treatment.
24 X 36 inches, oil on masonite. H. Newton. Courtesy Tyson
The images by artists of the Hudson River
School, that a century before gave rise to the tradition of landscape
painting in America, carried near-religious significance. Such
imagery sanctifies ones beliefs: Backus addressed the congregation
while the Highwaymen looked for converts, so to speak. Backus
had the knack, with his pink cotton candy clouds and brilliant
juxtapositions of color, to make those of us who are so susceptible
weak in the knees. Highwaymen paintings appealed to people who
didnt ordinarily buy art. Their images engaged people who
looked to the Sunshine State as the place to realize the American
Perhaps their picture-window
paintings didnt celebrate unspoiled nature as much as they
reflected the consumers values and aspirations. In that
the heyday of the Highwaymen coincided with the settling of contemporary
Florida, these paintings commemorated the homesteading of the
region and, by extension, the state. Now, having served their
purpose, as banners proclaiming ones arrival, the paintings
have been dusted off, reconsidered and commodified. In Florida
today, there is a near-feeding frenzy over acquiring Highwaymen
paintings, and, like the potato chip commercial suggests, it
seems that nobody can have just one.
The resurgent popularity of Highwaymen paintings is, I believe,
in part, a reprieve from our technologically driven and often
alienating society. Even art snobs have found virtue
in what some detractors have called motel art. I
find the pejorative referent uplifting; the paintings document
wondrously the culture that gave rise to them. One neednt
be apologetic. A non traditional sensibility may be required
to appreciate Highwaymen paintings, but, after all, arent
fresh eyes necessary for artists to make relevant observations?
24 X 36 inches, oil on Upson board. M.A. Carrol. Courtesy
Mr. & Mrs. Tim Jacobs
Some collectors have amassed hundreds
of paintings and intelligible collections. One cites being compelled
by a been there, seen that feeling. The sentiment
about capturing real Florida is commonly expressed. I hear reports
about enthusiastic first-time buyers as well; each excited by
the proposition of connecting with a Highwaymen image. Highwayman
Willie Reagan told me the old days were fun and profitable....
it looks like they are still.
The unspoiled landscape the
pictures represent and slower times they suggest may provide
solace as we wipe mildew from the furniture, tolerate increasing
traffic on the roads and rude soccer parents on the sidelines.
Or perhaps acquiring a painting provides solace because at the
heart of the images are disenfranchised blacks who had suffered
through "Jim Crow" Florida and escaped their own bleak
destinies. Nevertheless, there is more to the paintings than
meets the eye.
... A NEW BOOK
THE HIGHWAYMEN: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters
by Gary Monroe.
This book sets the facts straight
and will add legitimacy to the already popular works of this
unique group of artists. Published by the University Press of
& Art Around Florida
About the author:
Gary Monroe, author of The Highwaymen: Floridas
African-American Landscape Painters, is a native Floridian. His
pioneering research has defined the Highwaymen. He has received
grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Florida Division
of Cultural Affairs, Fulbright Foundation and other institutions;
the Florida Humanities Council supported his research for The
Highwaymen. Appointed to the Councils Speakers Bureau,
Mr. Monroe presents talks around the state on the Highwaymen.
For information, contact David Reddy at email@example.com.
Gary Monroe lives in DeLand and may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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