Art collectors and history buffs have long been interested in Florida’s Highwaymen, a group of 26 African-American landscape artists who carved a niche in Florida’s history back in the ’50s and ’60s.
Self-taught and self-promoted, they created a body of work of more than 200,000 paintings despite facing many racial and cultural barriers. The Highwaymen first began painting Florida landscapes to make a living, selling them door-to-door to businesses and homes.
During that era, it was impossible to find galleries interested in selling artworks by a group of amateur African-Americans, so they peddled their paintings, sometimes still wet, from the trunks of their cars along the eastern coastal roads of Florida.
Today, the Highwaymen paintings can be viewed at the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery in Fort Pierce, from which many of the original group of artists hailed. Their works can be also be found in The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, as well as many traveling gallery exhibits throughout Florida.
Once sold for just a few dollars, Florida Highwaymen paintings now typically sell for thousands. In May, a pair of Highwaymen murals painted on the cafeteria wall of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution sold for a bargain price of $75 each, as the prison was getting ready to close.
The new owner faced the task of extracting the paintings from the concrete wall, which were painted by Al “Blood” Black, an inmate who painted more than 100 murals in three prisons in Hillsborough, Orange and Volusia counties.
For more than 50 years the Florida Highwaymen created large numbers of relatively inexpensive landscape paintings using construction materials rather than traditional art supplies.
Rediscovered in the mid-1990s by Jim Fitch, a Florida art historian, they are recognized today as an important part of American folk history. Their success and longevity is astonishing, considering they began their career in the racially unsettled and violent times of the ’50s, when the civil rights movement was in its infancy.
Painting outdoors in the open air, these artists created expressive landscapes of untouched lands, creating scenes of meadows, beaches and farmlands.
The Florida Highwaymen had no backing or support, and had to be resourceful in both the production and sales of their works. In 1970, one of the original members of the group, Alfred Hair, who was also considered to be the main catalyst and soul of the group, was killed. As a result, some of the group’s creative energy and direction were lost, and the remaining members created fewer paintings.
Their renown has grown internationally during the 2000s, and the 26 Florida Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.
The remaining artists in the group, now in their 70s and 80s, continue to paint to this day, more than 50 years since they first began.
Over time, their style has evolved into more deliberate works and away from the original “fast painting” techniques that enabled them to produce large quantities of paintings in their early years.
Early on, the Florida Highwaymen were influenced by Florida landscape artist A.E. Backus, although only Alfred Hair was a formal student of Backus. Backus’ influence extended through Hair to the other 25 artists in the group. Although it was probably the worst time in American history for black Americans to be peddling art on the streets of Florida, the Highwaymen incredibly persevered and prospered.
One can only surmise that the Highwaymen offered an alternative view to some of the ugliness and racial turmoil that existed in the South during that period of history. Their unwavering pursuit of the “American Dream” was an inspiration to many, and the dreamlike, cheerful landscapes reflected a spirit of hope that transcended their everyday existence.
“I am now enlightened, believing that true artists are defined neither by ethnicity nor nationality, but by their ability to articulate a meaningful perception of life,” wrote Robert Butler, one of the Highwaymen artists who painted during the late 1960s. “Perhaps that is why my art is conspicuously absent of any narrative of the human drama that characterized life during its creation.”
Depicting only the innocent, untouched splendor of the Florida landscape, the Highwaymen paintings stand as some of the most refreshing, life-affirming images of those tumultuous times.