Alfred Hair Harold Newton Al Black James Gibson Mary Ann Carroll
The Florida Highwaymen was the name given to a group of 26 mostly self-taught African American landscape painters that began forming in the mid-1950s in Fort Pierce, Florida. Their artistic careers took shape under difficult racist social conditions of the Jim Crow South.
Art galleries would not exhibit works by black artists, and they and their works were turned away. They improvised a marketing plan that would see them traveling the east coast roadways of the Sunshine State selling their artwork door-to-door or from their cars. They sold to whoever would buy: offices, doctors, motels, lawyers, locals, and tourists. Sometimes their paintings were still wet when sold.
For the Florida Highwaymen, pursuing careers as artists was an appealing alternative to the precarious hard labor conditions of the fields and citrus groves or as domestics. Though artists, through necessity they wore the hats of innovators, entrepreneurs, marketers, and social activists. Their bravado challenged the norms and conventions of that time. The beauty they painted ran in stark contrast to the hatred and unrest of the deep south.
Vintage works use Upson board, an inexpensive and easy to work with wall paneling commonly used in house construction. It was an inexpensive alternative to canvas. Some artists would create several works simultaneously as they worked within color groups and subjects. In an almost assembly line type of process. Frames were handcrafted using crown molding and window trim, then painted white and finally brushed with gilding to give them a classic or antiqued look.
Their motto was, "a painting was not finished until it was sold."
From their beginnings, in 1954 members have created works for over 7 decades. Some estimates say that the Florida Highwaymen may have created 150,00 to upwards of 250,000 works. In their heyday of the early 1960s, paintings sold for $10-$35. Today vintage works by key members of the group might have 3 zeros added to the end of those numbers.
Make no mistake, their art was created in the moment to fulfill immediate needs. That we should talk of them 3/4 of a century after they began would make no sense to them. That their interpretations of an untouched paradise would become a statement for environmentalism. Or that their impressionistic style would be married to talks of civil rights, individual freedoms, and self-determination might shock them. They created their own history during tumultuous times and in so doing, their works have become a presentation of much more than art.
The Florida Highwaymen developed a mode of impressionism with an undeniable social consciousness. The most striking detail that unites all of these artists is their spectacular use of color. Their landscapes take on a fantastical, otherworldly quality. Nature’s subtleties and moods are caught in the constantly changing skies. We are transported to a primordial place and time, where man and his intrusions on nature do not exist.
With their vibrantly painted scenes of nature, the Florida Highwaymen produced an expression of longing for a more peaceful place, a representation of a new American life. An entire politic of self-determination informs the seemingly innocent design form and content of these works.
Only 8 of the Highwaymen artists survive. However, their legacy remains part of the contemporary focus. Nature defenseless in the crosshairs of man's hunger for land and growth. What can the Florida Highwaymen teach us about race in American today and, in turn, what can these discourses teach us about the Florida Highwaymen themselves?
An art exhibit by the famed African American mid century landscape group, the Florida Highwaymen. An ‘organic’ collection that can be adapted to the size shape, and capacity of each exhibition site, and can be modified to include relevant works by local artists. This could be explored as a collaboration, and might
take the form of the addition of art works that supplement the story, or could include
workshops, talks, and/or commissions. Few of the original Florida Highwaymen are
alive and well enough to travel, however, the possibility of the presence of one or
more of the painters can be considered.
If interested in the exhibition, further details can then be negotiated.
Thirty to sixty paintings by the Florida Higwaymen are available for joint partnership
with local and international art institutions for the purpose of creating a public
Samuel "Sam" Newton (1948)-2016)