Brush with Fame

by Michael Michelsen, Jr.

MOST OF THE ARTISTS who would eventually become known as the Highwaymen came from a neighborhood in Fort Pierce, Florida called ‘Blacktown’, where they attended Lincoln Academy High School. Others were from Gifford, the African-American neighborhood in Vero Beach, 20 miles north up the Atlantic coast.

The 1950s saw a growth spurt in the still largely undeveloped state. With the end of World War II, newly discharged soldiers flocked to the area they first experienced during their military training. Except this time they returned with spouses and families to enjoy the climate and casual, relaxed lifestyle. Backus reasoned that Florida landscapes were what these newly arriving young families wanted, whether they chose to settle in the Sunshine State or take an idealized vision with them when they returned home from their vacation.

In 1954, a young self-taught black artist from Ft. Pierce named Harold Newton met Albert E. ‘Bea’ Backus, an artist who had long established himself as the dean of Florida’s landscapes. Backus spent his life recreating the natural beauty that was Florida, for those who loved Florida.

Backus convinced Newton to paint marketable landscapes instead of the religious images he had created since childhood. And paint landscapes he did. Newton quickly made the transition and began peddling his paintings on the streets and door-to-door, often before the paint had dried. In what was then an outpost of the Jim Crow South, galleries did not often welcome the work of unestablished artists, much less those who were young and black.

Also in 1954, a Lincoln Academy art teacher, Zanobia Jefferson, introduced one of her most promising students, Alfred Hair, to Backus for art lessons and encouragement. Backus taught him a style that was predictable and pleasing. Painting came easily to Hair, who churned out hundreds of low priced paintings that could be sold quickly to the public for as little as $25 for a large, framed landscape. Hair increased his profit margin by painting on Upson board, a cheap roofing material, instead of canvas, and with common house paints as his medium. Crown molding served as framing material.

Speed and simplicity became hallmarks of Highwaymen art. Much to Backus’s chagrin, he was constantly urging Hair and his friends to “Slow down!” But by ignoring his entreaties, they perfected not only an ability to speed production, but it created a unique style as well. Multiple boards were often nailed to the sides of their homes or trees so as to work in assembly line fashion, often through the night. The aspiring young artists would visit Backus at his studio for advice, and encouragement, as well as free art supplies.

By 1957, Hair had left Backus’s studio and was urging his friends to join him in learning to paint. James Gibson, Ray McLenden, and Livingston Roberts were among the first to join him.

“We were like some guys who get together to work on their cars,” says Gibson, now 68. “We got together to paint and talk about art. We all learned from each other. We all taught each other how to become artists. We drank beer and ate barbeque. Those were fun times.”

Gibson was 19 years old and a student at Tennessee State University when he received a letter from Hair, urging him to quit school and join him in his new endeavor. “When I arrived and started painting, we all started to compete with each other to see who could produce the most paintings and who could see the most,” Gibson said, “but it was a good-natured competition because we were all helping each other learn to paint and sell our work better.”

After a weekend producing his first painting, a glistening view of the St. Lucie River framed by palm trees, Gibson went door-to-door in search of a buyer. Impressed, a dentist bought the painting for $20 and asked to see more. Gibson went home and quickly dashed off two more landscapes and sold them, too.

“I remember standing there with that money in my hand thinking I would never have been able to make that much money,” he said. “That’s when I realized I could make it as an artist.”

Together, the Highwaymen have produced more than 200,000 paintings featuring bold images of Florida’s coastline, lush interiors, royal Poinciana trees and fiery sunsets.

“Most of our ideas came from picture postcards that we would pick up in sets,” Gibson recalled. “In those days you could buy a bunch of those for 20¢, and we would share them between us to get ideas for our paintings and present the kind of images of Florida that appealed to tourists.

Mary Ann Carroll, 66, the lone woman in the group, who lives in Port St. Lucie, owned the only car among the painters, so she would drive them to their favorite spots along US Highway 1 and other roads to sell their paintings. Thus the group became known as The Florida Highwaymen.

Gibson explained, “When we were getting started, the only alternative available to us was working all day in the groves for $5, $10, or maybe $20. I could sell a painting for $20 or $25.”

Until 1998, Highwaymen art could be purchased at yard sales and flea markets across Florida for up to $100 each, but thanks to a New York Times article that year and subsequent books and articles about the group, paintings by these largely self-taught artists now command tens of thousands of dollars each.

In 1994, all 26 Highwaymen, 20 of them still living, were inducted into the Florida Art Hall of Fame, joining such cultural luminaries as Ray Charles, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

Gibson attributes much of the success of the Highwaymen to Al Hair, who provided not only the artistic formula, but the entrepreneurial inspiration for the group.

“To Al Hair, it was all about selling,” Gibson said. “Al Hair was a very competitive man. It didn’t matter what it was — football, basketball, or painting — he was always challenging us to do better. But he was best at challenging himself to do better. He was always coming up with ways to improve his technique and increase his production.”

On August 9, 1970, Hair completed an incredible 35 paintings, after which he went to a local tavern called Eddie’s Place in Ft. Pierce’s Blacktown neighborhood, where he was shot dead in a quarrel. He was 29.

Hair’s tragic and untimely death marked the end of much of the unifying spirit the painters enjoyed. Though most of the painters continued, the cohesiveness of the group was gone. Some painted to supplement their incomes, such as Carroll, who is also a minister. Another Highwaymen, Willie C. Reagan, a rarity in the group with a degree in art education from Florida A & M University, spent his career teaching in the public schools.

Others, such as Gibson, continued to paint as a full-time profession. “Back in the days when we were working together, we didn’t keep records of how much money we were making. All we knew was that we were making money, and we did everything we could to make our work more saleable. For example, I would go into all the upholstery shops to see what colors were popular from time to time, and I would incorporate those colors into my paintings.”

“While others in our neighborhood were struggling to eek out a living, we had money,” Gibson recalled. “That made us unusual.”

In the 1960s, a young black man at the wheel of a new car was enough to get attention, especially in largely agricultural South Florida. One day, as Gibson drove his Cadillac, a state trooper stopped him and asked who he was. “In my attempt to answer his questions, I opened my trunk to show him my paintings. He ended up buying two of them. And when we were done, he escorted me to his station where I sold 15 more.”

Today, recognition for the Highwaymen is not in short supply. Their paintings sell for up to $30,000 each, and hang in homes, offices, libraries, and museums across the state. Even former Governor Jeb Bush had three Highwaymen paintings in his office.

“It’s kind of a strange feeling being the object of a cult-like following, but to a large extent that’s what we have become,” Reagan said. “I would have never dreamed our art would become as popular as it has.”

Even collectors can’t decide, much less agree on what they like most about Highwaymen art. What everyone can agree on is that the “Highwaymen” title went from being just a way to make money to a folk art.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s all true,” Gibson said. “I like the money, but I love art.” •

Against All Odds:
The Art of the Highwaymen
Marco Island Historical Museum
thru February 29

The Highwaymen began as a group of African American artists, who, against all odds, managed to prosper selling their paintings in the segregated South of the 1950’s and 60’s. Developing a method of painting quickly, they produced more than 200,000 paintings over a 30-year period. The exhibit includes paintings by all 26 Highwaymen artists plus a painting by A.E. ‘Beanie’ Backus, an accomplished white Florida landscape artist who encouraged and supported the Highwaymen. The Marco Island Historical Museum is hosting ‘Against All Odds: The Art of the Florida Highwaymen’ thru February 29. Admission is free. The Museum, open Tue-Sat 9am-4pm, is located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive on Marco Island. For information, call 642-1440.

January-February 2012

John Maynor

Ray McLendon

“We got together to paint
and talk about art. We all
learned from each other.
We all taught each other
how to become artists.
We drank beer
and ate barbeque.”

Livingston Roberts

“I would go into all the
upholstery shops to see
what colors were popular
and I would incorporate
those colors into
my paintings.”

Isaac Knight

Sandy Newton