Saturday, April 24, 2010

Encountering the Florida Highwaymen

When I was a kid our family would take the Easter break from school to make our annual pilgrimage to Florida. We drove down, and the experience of seeing the whole Eastern seaboard left an indelible impression on me. We would stop at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see the Civil War battlefields, and also in Washington, DC on occasion to see the national monuments. The trip became more and more exotic as we entered the Carolinas and Georgia (the red clay of the latter may as well have been Martian soil) and finally arrived in Florida.

I still have a special fondness for palm trees and sandy beaches, and so these days my wife and I take our own kids south at Easter break to visit my mother on the Gulf Coast. We fly to save time, but the experience while there is not a bit diminished from my childhood (the Gulf Coast being far less developed than the East). Now, of course, I always keep my eye open for anything folk art related.

It was a great stroke of luck that our week in Florida coincided with the final week of an exhibition at the Art Center Sarasota of the paintings of the Highwaymen. This was a group of African American landscape painters who sold their work on the roadsides of Eastern Florida (around Fort Pierce) in the 1950s and 1960s. Over the years their story has made its way into the literature on American folk art, but their paintings have not yet worked their way into major collections that are readily accessible. Thus I had never actually seen a Highwaymen painting.

So I jumped at the chance to drive a half hour from where we were staying to the Art Center to see the exhibition, which featured 30 works from the private collection of Larry Helmuth. The story is fascinating. Sometime in the mid-1950s an instructor at the Lincoln Park Academy, an art school for African Americans, arranged for a promising student named Alfred Hair to study with the dean of Florida landscape painting, a white artist named A. E. "Bean" Backus. Hair learned how to paint the Florida wilderness in brilliant, efficient strokes and bold colors. He went back and taught a group of others to paint the same way, and they sold their works cheaply wherever they could. This way they were able to supplement their incomes and, in some cases, leave the hard labor of the orange groves for a better life.

This is another of those instances in the study of folk art where the history and the art are inseparable. Most of the Highwaymen paintings, on their own, are indistinguishable from inexpensive landscapes you might find at any flea market. The best of them, however, are quite beautiful. To see behind these paintings the American story of struggle to improve one's lot (in this case against daunting odds) is a truly enriching experience.

All of the paintings that I saw in the exhibition were signed by the artist, which tells me a lot about their self image. Therefore it is worth knowing all 25 of the Highwaymen by name, to ensure that you do not pass up one of their works if you happen to run across it at a shop or show. Historians estimate that they painted about 200,000 works, meaning there must be many out there waiting, as their makers did, for someone to acknowledge their worth.


  1. This is nice you're doing this as Cooperstown seems to be known only for baseball and the museum there.

  2. Thanks, CTL. Yes, there is much more to Cooperstown than baseball. It's nice to showcase a little of what we have to offer.


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