The “open road” is quintessential to the American experience. Long celebrated in American culture, it is indelibly stamped in the American psyche and springs forth from the American landscape.
One of the most triumphant and uplifting road stories is the tale of the Highwaymen, a group of young, African-American artists from Ft. Pierce who painted stylized picture postcard landscapes influenced by pre-eminent landscape artist A. E. (Bean) Backus. Although the Highwaymen have achieved legendary status in some circles, they remain relatively unknown to many people.
Gary Monroe, author of “The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters” will be the featured speaker at the 28th annual Civilian Conservation Corps Festival set for Saturday at Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring. His talk will be at 1 p.m. in the park’s recreation hall. The program is sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council with funding from the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs.
Artists Mary Ann Carroll, Al Black, Kelvin Hair and others will be exhibiting and selling paintings. Lisa Stone of Lisa Stone Arts, who promotes contemporary southern artists, will be exhibiting and selling vintage Highwaymen works. The lecture is free of charge.
Art acquisition agent Jim Fitch began researching the paintings in the mid 1990s and referred to these largely self-taught artists as “highwaymen” because they traveled Florida highways and back roads, selling paintings from the trunks of their cars.
Monroe identifies 26 painters as first-generation Highwaymen in his book. They include Harold Newton, who was already selling door-to-door and Alfred Hair, a protégé of Backus, who became the catalyst for the group.
Hair, equally deft with brush and palette knife, painted quickly and intuitively. Driven to make money, he devised a system of mass production by working on multiple boards. Salesman Al Black and others would then stack the paintings in the trunks of their cars even before the paint had dried, hitting the road and pitching them to hotels, banks, restaurants, professionals, homeowners, and the occasional tourist.
This loosely affiliated group overcame enormous social and economic obstacles of what was then a highly segregated South. By perfecting techniques to turn out paintings quickly and sell them outside of traditional art galleries, they carved out a unique niche, earning a living and escaping the drudgery of labor in Ft. Pierce’s orange groves and packing houses.
Thousands of paintings were sold during the 1950s, 1960s, and the early 1970s. It has been estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 paintings were executed.
With the passing of time and changing tastes, their works were removed and consigned to attics, closets, thrift stores, garages and yard sales. The painters fell into obscurity and were largely unknown until 1994, when Fitch wrote about them. A great deal of publicity followed as Monroe’s book spawned great interest. Avid art collectors and antique dealers uncovered lost paintings and sought out the artists, who had now re-emerged as the Highwaymen.
Paintings which originally sold for $25 to $50, now sold for several hundred to several thousand dollars. Through his lectures and books Monroe has taken the Highwaymen tale on the road and works to ensure their story is known. He successfully nominated the Highwaymen to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004. Monroe’s fourth book on Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the group, is now at University Press of Florida.
Highwaymen paintings are characterized by intense, vibrant color, red-orange sunsets and soft pastel dawns, verdant greens, stormy skies, solitary pines, spiraling clouds, breaking waves, wind-swept beaches, bending palms, moss-covered oaks and cypress trees, bright tropical foliage, and rivers, sloughs, and inlets reflecting silvery moonlight.
The Highwaymen presentation will be a highlight of the 28th annual CCC Festival. Admission to the festival is included in the state park entry fee of $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people).