by Jim Fitch
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1995
"The Highwaymen" is a name I've given to a
group of black artists working on the East coast of Florida from approximately
1955 to the present. So called because their marketing and sales strategy
consisted of traveling the highways and byways of central Florida peddling
their paintings out of the back of their cars.
Although I've identified nearly twenty of these artists still living,
they are, for the most part, unknown and have not received credit for their
contribution to Florida's art tradition. In fact, it was these artists who
were the bare bones beginning for Florida's resident/regional art tradition.
Further, their paintings met a growing demand for regional Florida art and
served to encourage what has become the Indian River school of painting,
perhaps the only school or movement within the state that is recognizable
The story of the Highwaymen begins with one man, now deceased, who has
come to be known as the dean of Florida landscape painters, A. E.
"Bean" Backus of Fort Pierce. I use the admittedly arbitrary date
of 1950 as a point of beginning because that was the year Bean married
Patsy Hutchinson and his career began to blossom. Unfortunately, Patsy died
of complications following heart surgery in 1955. Bean's love from then on
was painting. He devoted himself to his art, the daily consumption of a
quantity of rum, good conversation, and good friends.
Although Bean was a white Southerner during a time when racial equality
was not yet taken seriously, he was a friend to all. This characteristic,
coupled with a natural Bohemian bent, made him the perfect mentor to a group
of young black men who had noted the apparent ease with which he made a
living. Painting, for them, was perceived as being a way out of the fields
Most of these young men were content to learn by osmosis, by observation.
Bean's studio became a place to congregate. One seemed more eager to learn
than the others. His name was Alfred Hair. To my knowledge, Alfred was the
only one of this group of black men to take formal lessons from Bean and
even accompanied him to the Bahamas on occasion.
Apparently Alfred had an entrepreneurial spirit because he later organized
some of the others who had hung around Bean's studio and began to "mass
produce" Florida landscape paintings. They were usually done on Upsom
board with whatever materials were at hand, including house paint.
It seems that Alfred employed specialists. Some were tree painters, some
painted only skies, others did water. Who signed the paintings was of
little concern to anyone.
Unfortunately, Alfred Hair was killed in a barroom brawl. Lacking his
organizational skills, most of the others went their own ways and began
to paint and sell for themselves. Not all of these artists were content
to paint by formula. Some went on to develop their talents and skills and
have gained respectable reputations. Some retained the highway sales
A few of the more capable artists in this group are Harold Newton, now
incapacitated by a stroke, George Buckner, still painting and selling near
the thousand dollar range (George and his brother Ellis, now deceased, once
operated a gallery in Coral Gables) and Al Black, who in my opinion most typifies
Somewhere I've heard it said that one sure road to success is to "find a need and fill it". These black artists did just that. Whether we are willing to accept their work as "art" or not is an argument I won't make. I do know that by painting for the marketplace they inadvertently created an awareness of and appreciation for Florida regional art. They deserve recognition for that contribution.
For additional reading on this subject, Click The Highwaymen - Revisited
Jim Fitch is the director of The Museum of Florida's Art & Culture, an institution
dedicated to the artists of Florida whose work, in any medium, is visually
linked to Florida's history, heritage or environment. 941-655-0412.
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