The Florida Highwaymen, Jim Crow era painters who captured old Florida
June 28, 2016 12:52 PM   Subscribe

If you lived or traveled through the Fort Pierce region of Florida in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s, you may have had the chance to buy a landscape painting from an African American man, with Upson board as the canvas and crown molding as a frame, and the paint might have still been wet. Unable to get their art into local galleries, this rough collective of 26 self-taught artists peddled their wares to local businesses, through neighborhoods and to tourists. Their style fell out of fashion into the 1980s, but some of the painters persisted. Their style gained new recognition in the 1990s, a handful continue to paint to this day. They are known as The Highwaymen, and their art captures the natural, and somewhat lost Florida of the past.

The Highwaymen started with Albert Ernest Backus, Bean or Beanie to his friends, who was the "dean" of the Florida landscape school, or Indian River school, as the group's art has also been labeled. Himself self-taught, Beanie opened his two studios and his home to a wide variety of people, teaching and mentoring others in the landscape style he used. It was Backus who taught Alfred Hair, the founder of the group of African American artists and art dealers. Realizing that he couldn't sell a painting for $250 or $300 like Bean did, Hair decided he could paint faster and sell each at a tenth of the price.

With this speed and style shared with others, these colorful landscapes [became] ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state's popular image as much as oranges and alligators. Though the total number of their paintings is unknown, the key or core members of the loose collective is:
  1. Alfred Hair,
  2. Al “Blood” Black,
  3. Curtis Arnett,
  4. Hezekiah Baker,
  5. Brothers Ellis Buckner and
  6. George Buckner,
  7. Robert Butler (interview)
  8. Brothers Lemuel Newton,
  9. Sam Newton, and
  10. Harold Newton,
  11. Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the group,
  12. Brothers Johnny Daniels and
  13. Willie Daniels,
  14. Rodney Demps (interview),
  15. James Gibson,
  16. Isaac Knight,
  17. Robert (R.L.) Lewis (demonstration 1, demonstration 2),
  18. John Maynor,
  19. (R.A.) Roy McLendon (Jr.),
  20. Alfonso “Pancho” or “Poncho” Moran,
  21. Willie Reagan (interview),
  22. Livingston “Castro” Roberts,
  23. Carnell “Pete” Smith,
  24. Charles Walker (interview),
  25. Sylvester Wells, and
  26. Charles “Chico” Wheeler
When Alfred Hair was killed in a bar fight in 1970, the group lost its steam, but some members continued. Then the fashion changed in the 1980s, paired with some level of market saturation, and the Indian River school style was on the way out. The current revival of interest in the art and artists started in 1995, when Jim Fitch named the group The Highwaymen and brought recognition to their art to Florida. From there, the collective has gained renown, with some painters returning to their craft after seeing the appreciation for their artwork.

In 2004, Alfred Hair and the Florida Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and their stories were told in The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters. The author, Gary Monroe, went on to write a series of books about the group and individual artists. In 2008, PBS aired a documentary, titled The Highwaymen, Legends of the Road (YT playlist of official clips), further expanding the fame of the Highwaymen and Highwaywoman from Ft. Pierce, Florida. And if you visit their hometown, you can take The Highwaymen Trail and visit 10 locations on the heritage trail. If you can't visit in person, The Highwaymen Trail website has more features, including biographies on the artists, in many cases the most extensive currently online (and thus, linked above).
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
this style is DOPE I want all of these
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:08 PM on June 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

What Potomac Avenue said, and I want to cry for all the lost artists and creators who faced obstacles to recognition for petty reasons
posted by infini at 1:14 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is fascinating. Thanks.
posted by Kabanos at 1:21 PM on June 28, 2016

that luminous patch of green where the sun is backlighting the wave. masterful.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:30 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Do like. Would place upon a vertical surface in my domicile.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:40 PM on June 28, 2016

Which of these links actually has a gallery of images of these paintings? I don't want to watch a video - I want to see the artwork. All of the links just seem to have photos of the artists or videos.
posted by clockworkjoe at 1:40 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The last link before the cut has a gallery.
posted by stopgap at 1:49 PM on June 28, 2016

Which of these links actually has a gallery of images of these paintings?

As stopgap mentioned, the last link ("their art captures the natural, and somewhat lost Florida of the past" - a slideshow from the Miami Herald), and the links to each artist generally point to The Highwaymen Trail website, where they have included a few examples of each artist's work. I'll dig around for some reliable sites with galleries - most I saw were trying to sell and/or buy these pieces, which felt a bit scummy for a FPP.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:06 PM on June 28, 2016

I have seen imitations of this style but the originals are news to me. Fascinating post!
posted by thelonius at 3:19 PM on June 28, 2016

WOW! You can just about feel the humidity in the way they paint the light....

Thank you, FLT, for the comprehensive intro. What a stupid, senseless waste discrimination is -- first that these painters weren't recognized in their own time, but also that history's long fingers rob so many people of knowing about & enjoying their work today. I might never have known about the Florida Highway[wo]men if it weren't for this post. I really admire them.
posted by Westringia F. at 5:17 PM on June 28, 2016

Awesome post. This was something I knew nothing about before this post, but I'm struck by the way the historial arc FLT outlines follows the trajectory of southern African-American country blues musicians a half-generation earlier: a vernacular art form flourishes without achieving breakthrough commercial success or cultural-capital elite validation, and then is recognized and celebrated once its practitioners are too old to profit fully from their work.

I assume that filthy light thief has a link to Eric Clapton's Florida landscapes that he is saving for later on in the thread.
posted by sy at 7:30 PM on June 28, 2016

The painters painted on Upson board, a precursor of today's drywall, using house paint. There still a few active - older men who set up a booth at the Ft. Pierce farmer's market down by the marina on Saturday mornings or at the Stuart green market on Sundays. These painters were really discovered by the art collectors in the 1990s. We used to find paintings by Hair, Gibson, or one of the Newtons at garage sales or flea markets for $10-35. Now, some, particularly Alfred Hair's works, go for $1000-5000. The frames were hand-made by the artists and, in some cases, are more valuable than the paintings. The most valuable paintings show Poinciana trees, homes, or - the most rare - people. This would be a valuable one.

Harold Newton's painting of Eddie's Bar in Ft. Pierce (the place where the painters hung out and ultimately Alfred Hair was killed) is the one I want. There are some great dives in Ft. Pierce but Eddie's Bar is no more.
posted by sudogeek at 7:47 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Backus Museum in downtown Ft.Pierce near the marina has a large rotating collection.
posted by sudogeek at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older When you wish upon a bra...   |   The Art of Alexander Paulus Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments