The Highwaymen, a roving band of African-American landscape artists, will be inducted this week in Florida’s Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee. This institution, established in 1986, currently honors 34 Florida artists. Some of them were not exactly native sons. The other inductee for 2004, artist and sculptor Albin Polasek, a Czech national who spent his productive years in New York and Chicago, is included because he retired in Florida. But then, Florida is the state that is putting John Lennon’s likeness on one of its auto specialty tags because he once performed in Miami.
If anyone qualifies for the title of Florida artist, without question it is the Highwaymen. They - and their art - are pure Floridian. Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s this group of young black men, in their late teens or early 20s, produced and sold an estimated 200,000 paintings. Much of it still exists, albeit in attics and garages. It is being brought to light in great part by the efforts of photographer/author Gary Monroe, who has been studying their folk art movement since 1996 and was instrumental in their induction in the Artists Hall of Fame.
The 1950s was a time when the South was strictly segregated and no art gallery would show work by black artists. A white Southerner landscape painter, A. E. "Bean" Backus of Fort Pierce, befriended a group of young black men. One of them, Alfred Hair, took formal lessons from Backus because he could see that painting pictures was an easier way of earning a living than working in orange groves and packing houses.
Hair set up an assembly line to mass produce Florida landscape paintings. After every lesson from Backus, Hair would teach his newly-learned techniques to a group of about 20 friends. One man became a specialist at painting water scenes, another painted the sky. There were beach specialists, forest specialists, and bird specialists. These paintings were then sold along the highway from the backs of automobiles or door–to-door in small towns in central Florida.
Untitled, the works were signed in a haphazard fashion - first name, or last name, or nickname only, whoever did the most work on a painting, or whoever did the finishing touches. Some of the group worked in the construction field, so they used leftover masonite panels and ordinary house paint, with door molding for frames.
The colors were harsh and vivid : deep blue skies, shocking pink clouds, flaming red poinciana trees, orange and purple sunsets. The subjects were without innovation - two cabbage palms against a sunset, a Spanish moss-draped tree deep in a swamp, massive dark oaks along a quiet river, egrets stalking frogs in lake shallows, gulls wheeling over a deserted beach.
The Highwaymen worked fast, three or four paintings each per day, and sold their output the same way. They had no vendors' licenses, paid no tax, had no established sales territory. Most of them were smooth-talking, aggressive salesmen. They first sold their work up and down US 1, the main highway running along the east coast of Florida, then branched out into east-west secondary roads leading to backwater areas.
They catered to a market that was ignored by other artists. Florida in the 1950s was not a fertile spot for local art. Poor folks, struggling to make ends meet, had no spare change to spend on pictures. Rich people bought their art in big city galleries "up North". There was very little work available by local Florida artists.
There was one segment of the public eager to buy cheap Florida landscape paintings to cover their walls : small town businessmen. Merchants, country bankers, owners of family-run motels, rural doctors and dentists, all were likely customers for the $35 paintings offered by Albert Hair and his friends. With their bright, gaudy wares, the Highwaymen tapped into this market.
By no stretch of the imagination could the work be called fine art. These pictures have been compared to lurid mid-20th century postcards, offered on a wire rack in the dime store. They are reminiscent of "airport art" found in many African countries, hastily and crudely carved wood or soapstone figures made for the tourist trade.
But the Highwaymen paintings, by and large, were not sold to tourists; they were sold to Floridians who recognized that the lavish hues and strong color combinations used were exactly what the Florida sky and Florida waters were frequently like. Highwaymen landscapes rang true for people who had spent time in the swamps and on the lakes and rivers of backwoods Florida.
It would be nice to be able to say that entry in the Artists Hall of Fame will bring recognition to the band of 20-some artists. Many of them are no longer painting. Alfred Hair, the acknowledged leader, was shot and killed in a Fort Pierce bar in 1970. With Hair's death, many drifted off to other lifestyles. Highwaymen paintings became a curious footnote to the Florida art scene.
Jim Fitch, a white Southerner art historian with an art gallery in Sebring, Florida, became enamored with what is now called the Indian River school of painting. He began collecting the paintings, buying them in garage sales and flea markets for five or ten dollars each. In the 1990s he also began a search in the black community of Fort Pierce for the artists, who he named the Highwaymen. Fitch felt that they were the beginning of Florida's resident/regional art tradition. It is largely due to his efforts that the media began to pay attention to these artists, and that Gary Monroe became interested in the Highwaymen.
There are several Highwaymen who still paint and market their work : Sam Newton, James Gibson, Ralph Butler, Roy McLendon and the sole woman in the group, Mary Carroll.
Fitch, however, feels that today they are following trends and fads, rules of composition and color rather than intuitively heeding their natural instincts which served them so well in the early years.
One thing is certain; the Highwaymen paintings have become very collectible
in the last few years and the Artists Hall of Fame recognition will encourage this trend
. A legend
is in the making.
"The Highwaymen/Florida's African-American Landscape Painters" by G. Monroe, University Press of Florida