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Painting the Sunshine

A sunset by Harold Newton, one of the few Highwaymen with formal training

You may think you recognize the ingredients of typical paintings by a group of Florida artists now widely known as the Highwaymen: gracefully curving palms jutting over a waterfront, blazingly red royal poincianas that seem to have just burst into bloom, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, churning ocean waves crashing ashore, impossibly vibrant sunsets -- the kind that first lured me to South Florida -- that capture the elusive palette of the sky at dusk.

But after looking at dozens and dozens of Highwaymen paintings at once, as I did recently, you may also conclude that the Florida captured by these itinerant artists is long gone, if it ever existed at all. They painted -- and in many cases still paint -- a Florida that had not fallen prey to development and overdevelopment, a Florida in which the natural landscape was taken for granted. A handful of perfectly captured trees or even a single tree can render a Highwayman painting transcendent far beyond its genre roots.

The Highwaymen were a group of 26 black Fort Pierce-area artists, all but one male, who traveled the segregated Florida of the 1950s and early 1960s. They often sold their freshly finished paintings out of their cars on the sides of roads; sometimes they went door to door, targeting motels, doctor and dentist offices, banks, and other commercial establishments that might be in the market for some inexpensive generic art to deck the walls. Their art provided not only a creative outlet for these young men but also an alternative to working in the citrus groves and tomato fields that would otherwise be their most likely sources of employment.

A representative sampling of the work of these Florida originals is on display as part of a large exhibition called, simply, "The Highwaymen," now at Art Link International in Lake Worth. Art Link is a no-frills gallery that's as likely to prop paintings against walls or place them on whatever flat surface is available as to hang them. There's no fancy exhibition brochure, although there's an informative documentary -- The Highwaymen: Florida's Outside Artists -- available in both VHS and DVD formats, in lieu of a catalog. The show started out with more than 100 pieces, many of which have already sold; the gallery will also continue to traffic in Highwaymen paintings after this display has concluded.

The show may or may not be the first to include pieces by all 26 original Highwaymen -- the press release fudges on this point -- but no matter. The cumulative effect of seeing so much Highwaymen art at once is a strong statement on the importance of these artists and their contribution to a fiercely regional art. Looking at the paintings, I felt I was actually seeing Florida for the first time, even if in a highly stylized fashion.

The Highwaymen were so dubbed in 1995 by Florida art scholar Jim Fitch, who meant the name not, as some have mistakenly interpreted, as any disparaging suggestion of highway robbers but as a pointer to their "traveling salesman" technique of peddling their wares on the road. Fitch has continued to be a chronicler and enthusiast of these artists, whom he credits as being the forebears of Florida's Indian River school of painting.

As Fitch and others have documented, the Highwaymen are all, directly or indirectly, the artistic heirs of A.E. "Bean" Backus, a white Fort Pierce landscape painter who, bucking the racial segregation of his time, welcomed aspiring black artists into his studio to observe him at work. An especially ambitious and talented young Highwayman-to-be, Alfred Hair, actually took formal lessons from Backus and went on to become a mentor to many other Highwaymen.

Backus, who had studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and the charismatic good-looking Hair parted ways, aesthetically, when the latter hit upon a sort of artistic assembly line. Hair, who died after a barroom scuffle in 1970 at age 29, recruited other young artists who helped him raise his output by contributing their specialties -- one painter might specialize in skies, another in trees. The finished work bore the characteristic "A, Hair" signature, even though any number of other Highwaymen might have contributed to it.

Initially, the Highwaymen tended to paint in oils on Upson panels, a construction material prized for its cheapness. (It's no longer produced, which makes Upson a standard for determining the age of a Highwaymen piece.) Backus' technique of painting with a palette knife was carried on by some of the group, including Hair, although other Highwaymen were (and are) highly adept with various types of brushes.

The artists moved on to Masonite and canvas, although their subject matter remained essentially the same. It seems that at some point, almost every Highwayman portrays, as if it's some rite of passage, the grand royal poinciana tree in full bloom. There's also an emphasis on the Sunshine State's expansive skies, with their amazing variety of clouds. Except for birds, wading or in flight, animal life appears to be of little concern.

I'm reluctant to address the Highwaymen art I saw in Lake Worth as individual pieces. So much of it is, at least superficially, similar, and the artists have all recycled their material repeatedly. But some of the pieces I saw stood out for various reasons. A pair of Roy McLendon paintings, for instance, are notable for including people, a relative rarity in Highwaymen art.

One McLendon piece, rendered in unusually thick impasto, features a royal poinciana, a small nondescript house, and a woman, hands on hips, watching a boy toying with an automobile tire. The boy, it turns out, is Roy McLendon Jr., who is now also a painter and whose round canvas painting of a jacaranda tree hangs on the other side of the gallery.

Another especially striking piece by McLendon Sr. is a typical Highwaymen landscape: lush tropical foliage, including a beautifully detailed palm tree, punctuated by a small house and a man sitting in a chair and fishing in the small creek that runs through the image. As in so many Highwaymen works, the human figure is crudely delineated, as if added as an afterthought.

Exceptional technique is also evident in a painting by Harold Newton, a pioneer Highwayman and one of few with formal training. The landscape itself is nothing new: some tall thin trees, including a leafless one, at water's edge, a hint of a fence trailing down to the water. But Newton has used a few thin streaks to suggest a thunderstorm in the distance, and he has used short impressionist-style brushstrokes in an array of grays and whites to create a turbulent sky.

A painting by Sam Newton, brother of Harold, features a sunset with extraordinary neon-like swaths of a salmony orange that are mirrored in the water below. Birds -- wading, flying, huddling in the distance -- are indicated by the simplest of strokes of white pigment.

Estimates of the Highwaymen's output to date range from 50,000 to 200,000 paintings -- in his heyday, Hair is said to have produced three or four a day -- and as the artists' fame has spread, the prices their work commands has soared. Paintings that originally sold for a few dollars, then later $20 or $30, now go for hundreds, thousands, or in a few cases tens of thousands.

Ironically, Fitch laments that the reputation of some of the painters who continue to produce has taken a toll on the quality of their work: "Unfortunately, in my opinion, their work has been affected by all the publicity the artists have received in the last three years," he wrote in a 1997 issue of Antiques & Art Around Florida. "The great potential that was grounded in their naivete has become the heavy burden of conformity. Suddenly they are 'artists,' conscious of trends and fads and governed by rules of composition and color. I get the feeling they're painting to match the sofa rather than giving rein to their natural instincts, which is what made the work notable in the first place."

Maybe so. But the Highwaymen put the regional art of Florida on the map and at the same time established a lasting tribute to mentor Bean Backus. They also captured the beauty of natural Florida more lovingly than anyone this side of famed photographer Clyde Butcher. That's no mean feat.


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