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Have Paint, Will Travel

What makes a Highwaymen painting a Highwaymen painting?

That's one of several questions posed by the provocative if prosaically titled "2005 Florida Highwaymen Exhibition" at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale. Like the Haitian art that preceded it, this show is full of art, some of it wonderful, that cries out for more context than the organizers give it. (An exhibition catalog is on the way, according to a gallery employee.) So, before we consider potential answers, a little detour is in order.

The catch-all label "Highwaymen" was coined about a decade ago by Florida art historian Jim Fitch, although the artists so designated have been active since the mid-1950s. That's when an enterprising and artistically talented young black man, Alfred Hair, began selling his quickly produced paintings from his car along Florida roadsides (hence the name).

Hair's venture represented an alternative to many of the low-paying, labor-intensive jobs available to blacks at the time, such as harvesting citrus and other farm crops or working in packinghouses. His idea caught on, and some artists took the on-the-road concept a step further, peddling their pictures door to door at commercial establishments. Another early and influential Highwayman, Harold Newton, was known for bartering his work, using his art as a kind of currency.

The original Highwaymen included Hair, Newton, and 24 other young black painters from the Fort Pierce area; with the exception of Mary Ann Carroll, all were male. Last year, those 26 were added to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, which was established by the state Legislature in 1986 to recognize "persons, living or deceased, who have made significant contributions to the arts in Florida either as performing or practicing artists in individual disciplines."

That broad definition means that the Highwaymen find themselves in the company of such wildly diverse figures as Jimmy Buffett, Clyde Butcher, Ray Charles, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Duane Hanson, Ernest Hemingway, Addison Mizner, Robert Rauschenberg, Burt Reynolds, James Rosenquist, Edward Villella, and Tennessee Williams. It also reunites the artists with 1993 Hall of Fame inductee A.E. Backus, the white Fort Pierce native Fitch calls the "dean of Florida landscape painting," without whom the Highwaymen might not even be possible.

Backus, whose supposed fondness for legumes inspired the nicknames "Bean" and "Beanie," was a largely self-taught artist who became a mentor, in different ways, to Newton and Hair. According to the 2001 book The Florida Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, by Gary Monroe, Newton had already established himself in the Fort Pierce area as a painter of religious scenes (often on velvet) when, in 1954, he met Backus, who encouraged him to focus on landscape painting. Hair, however, is apparently the only future Highwayman who took formal lessons from Backus, with whom he studied from 1955 through 1957.

Chief among Backus' legacies is his subject matter: the flora and fauna of Florida, usually presented in the context of a landscape; sunrises and sunsets are common. Monroe, an art professor at Daytona Beach Community College, traces the roots of these Florida landscapes to the Hudson River School and characterizes them as celebrating "emotion over reason... nature over civilization."

The artists who came to be known as the Highwaymen embraced this love of landscape painting, as well as Backus' fondness for working the pigment with a palette knife. Hair, who was as ambitious as he was gifted, established a studio of sorts in which he employed artists who specialized in painting, say, palm trees or clouds. There are anecdotal accounts of Hair setting up rows of as many as ten paintings that he would work on at the same time. The artists were also said to get together for painting parties.

The emphasis on speed and efficiency -- Hair has been quoted as saying, "Paint fast, sell quickly" -- made the Highwaymen famously prolific. Estimates of their output during their heyday (the late 1950s, 1960s, and into the early 1970s) range from 100,000 to 200,000 paintings. Of course, these works typically sold for only $20 to $35 apiece; a Bean Backus canvas from the same era, by contrast, might have fetched $250. The artists, in other words, were hardly on the road to riches, so they coupled high productivity with economical art supplies. Instead of canvas, for example, they painted on a cheaper substitute called Upson board, a sheeting material that was used by roofers.

A resurgence of interest in art created by nonprofessionals -- known variously as art brut ("raw art"), folk art, primitive art, and outsider art -- led to a rediscovery of the Highwaymen and their idyllic portraits of a Florida that was long gone. Highwaymen art that had once graced garage sales began to show up in galleries and at auctions. If you were fortunate enough to have had a painting by one of the Highwaymen stashed in an attic or on an office wall, you could have cashed it in for hundreds, maybe even thousands, more than its original price. (On an impromptu check of eBay, I found more than 50 paintings up for grabs, some with bids into the low thousands.)

Which brings us back to the starting point. The exhibition at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, which features more than 75 paintings, most of which are for sale, is just one more affirmation that the Highwaymen have arrived. The wrinkle is that about a third of the 19 artists featured are second-generation Highwaymen. There are three Hair paintings, for instance, but they're by son Kelvin rather than father Alfred, who was killed in a juke-joint fight in 1970 at age 29. The one small Harold Newton painting on display is locked in a glass case.

Without labels to identify the artists, the average gallery visitor would probably be hard-pressed to distinguish between works by the two generations of Highwaymen. With few exceptions -- most notably, Robert Butler's handful of images set in mountains around the world -- the subject matter and technique are largely the same. And anyway, Highwaymen art has never been primarily about flashy technique. It's not even especially significant that most of the paintings here are on canvas, because Upson board has long been unavailable, and the original Highwaymen moved on to canvas and Masonite as soon as they could.

So, to reiterate, what makes a Highwaymen painting a Highwaymen painting? A family connection? Most of the second-generation painters in this show share a name with one of the original Highwaymen, although there are no text panels to elaborate. And when successive generations of artists continue to work in a particular style long after the circumstances that prompted it have changed, is it affectation, or is it carrying on an artistic legacy? If the latter, does the quality of the art merit sustaining a tradition?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but I think the discussion and curiosity they provoke are useful and stimulating. As for this exhibition, taken strictly on its own terms, it's a mixed bag: People who already have some appreciation of the Highwaymen may come away a little frustrated that the show's presentation doesn't do them justice, while those who are unfamiliar with the art (and the artists) may wonder what all the fuss is about. Still, the trip the Highwaymen take us on is worth taking, and the stops along the way are worth making, even if we're unsure of our ultimate destination.

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Michael Mills

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