To be or not to be,
that's the question
by Jim Fitch
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2005
This article is about artists who want to be
recognized as Highwaymen, those who donít want to be labeled as
Highwaymen, and one African American who probably should receive
recognition as one of the group. I call him the "lost Highwayman."
If youíve checked out the listings on e-Bay
lately you know that there are a lot of folks who want to be
Highwaymen. There are listings for "Highwayman style", "Highwayman
influenced", and paintings being offered by sons and daughters of
Highwaymen. I guess they would be called second generation
When Gary Monroe began to research his book about
the artists we met occasionally to compare notes. We both realized
that things would undoubtedly get crazy as the myth makers and
wannabees got involved. That was inevitable. But...,sorry you
aspiring artists, but there are no second generation Highwaymen.
People can call their work Highwayman style if they like and even
take advantage of the marketing benefits of the Highwaymen
phenomenon but they canít be a Highwayman unless they are identified
as such in Gary Monroeís book (one possible exception is noted at
the end of this article). Gary did extensive interviews and
investigating before going to press and until evidence to the
contrary is uncovered the list included in his book is closed.
Sunset, Earl Barber
SoÖ, we have plenty of wannabees. Strangely
enough we also have donít wannabees.
You can see those listings on the internet under
"Not a Highwayman" and "Highwayman Not". I can understand why some
folks wouldnít want to be identified with the Highwaymen because they
consider them to be "artists of a lesser god". What I donít understand
is why a legitimate, identified Highwayman would deny the affiliation.
When I first sensed that there was a fascinating
story behind these artists and coined the name "Highwaymen", I
traveled to the Fort Pierce area often to buy paintings and talk with
as many of the artists as I could. My first contact was with the owner
of a small book shop on U.S.1 who had some paintings by local black
artists for sale. She put me in touch with Charles Walker, a black
artist who specialized in wildlife art rather than landscapes. As I
talked with Charles about wanting to meet the other African American
artists who all seemed to be located in and around Fort Pierce he went
to great lengths to let me know that he was not part of that group. He
definitely didnít want to be associated with them. Even today,
although Charles shares many of the characteristics of the Highwaymen
artists, he remains an outsider. He did offer to help me meet
Livingston Roberts but after three failed appointments I gave up.
Oaks On Left
Another "Highwaymen not" is Sam Newton. Even
though Sam can easily be classified as a typical Highwayman, he
claims no connection with the group. At the same time he takes full
advantage of all the visibility the group has generated to sell his
My wife and I happened to be at an antique shop in
Melbourne one day when Sam drove up. The shop owner introduced us and
Sam said "Oh yeah! Youíre the guy whoís writing all that bum dope
about us artists." Sensing an opportunity, I asked him to give me the
real story. The first thing he did was try and convince me that he was
not part of any group and that he was an independent artist doing his
own thing in his own way. At that point, I thought it best to change
the subject so I asked him if he had any paintings for sale. He said
he did and we walked over to his Cadillac. He opened the trunk and
sold me two paintings. One was by his brother Harold. I thought it
best not to mention the irony in this transaction. You canít convince
Sam that he is a Highwayman.
Harold Newtonís sister is also a naysayer. She
insists that her brother, now deceased and caring less, was not a
"Highwayman". When she advertises her wares for sale on e-Bay she uses
the term "Highwayman not".
James Gibson takes the middle of the road. He
maintains his independence but doesnít deny being affiliated with the
group. I met James at a gallery event in Fort Pierce one evening.
Because I had taken some flak about the name "Highwaymen" I decided to
ask James how he felt about the label. His reply was classic, he said
"Mr. Fitch, Iím a survivor." meaning that he didnít care what you
called him, just buy his paintings.
Actually, most of the artists
appreciate the recognition. After toiling for many years in
obscurity it is well deserved. Being inducted into the Florida
Artists Hall of Fame didnít hurt either.
Some of the artists who see an opportunity for advancing their
careers have formed an organization called Highwaymen Artists L.L.C..
The organizer is Robert Butler, a Highwayman who knows the benefits
found in the philosophical quote "carpe diem" (seize the day). His
group has partnered with an educational institution and private
business to enhance environmental awareness via their art and to
promote the arts as a career opportunity to minorities.
Last but hopefully not least is the case of Earl
Barber, the "lost Highwayman". Earl was born in Lawtey, Florida,
lived and taught school in Gifford, and palled around with Harold
Newton and the Buckner brothers. He also painted Florida landscapes.
In the early 70ís he moved back to Lawtey and supported his family
by continuing to paint and with whatever odd jobs came along.
Recently he had occasion to travel to Jacksonville to buy picture
frames. The frame dealer asked him if he was a Highwayman and Earl
replied, "Whatís a Highwayman?" As strange as it seems, Earl had
never heard about the Highwayman story and had no idea that his old
friends had been identified as the beginning of Floridaís
contemporary art tradition.
The dealer put him in touch with me, we talked on
the phone (I was skeptical), and arranged to meet. I asked Earl to
bring some of his older paintings and any biographical information he
had about his life as an artist. The paintings he brought were on
Upson board that had been primed with shellac, framed with carpenters
moulding, and unmistakably the work of a Highwayman.
I do believe that Earl deserves to be considered as
one of the group of black artists now known as the Highwaymen. It
remains to be seen what the collectors and dealers think.
About the author:
Jim Fitch is the Curator at the
South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Art and Culture (MOFAC)
in Avon Park. This is the fourth article about the Highwaymen that
he has written for Antiques and Art Around Florida. The Museum
maintains a permanent exhibit of Highwaymen paintings and is open to
the public Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 12:30 to 4:30 P.M.
Private tours and Highwaymen lectures can be arranged by
appointment, call 863-784-7240. You may also visit the Museumís
website at www.mofac.com
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