The Highwaymen

By Ken Hall

The "Highwaymen" is the name given to a loosely associated group of young African-American artists living in the Fort Pierce area of Florida in the 1950's through the 1970's. They were so-called because they'd sell their works -- often still wet -- on the roadside or out of the trunk of a car. The paint surface? Usually inexpensive roofing material. And the frame, white crown moulding. The 26 painters (all men except for one woman, MaryAnn Carroll) latched onto art as a way to escape a more grueling fate: picking or crating oranges in the local groves.

The Highwaymen eked out a living, selling their paintings for about $25 to tourists or appreciating locals. Their work was primal and raw depicting idyllic views of the Florida landscape, before rampant development would reconfigure the state's topography forever. The Highwaymen may not have realized it at the time, but by creating such evocative themes in their work, they were satisfying buyers' needs and laying the base for a huge demand in the future.

It is estimated the Highwaymen produced about 50,000 oil paintings before unofficially disbanding in the 1980's, when the popularity of the genre waned and they largely turned to other jobs. But today -- fueled by a nostalgia for a Florida that is gone forever, plus the burgeoning popularity of folk art in general -- the market for an original work of art by a Highwayman can easily bring $5,000 or more. The Highwaymen themselves (many are still alive) have resumed painting, to meet the continuing demand for their work.

The birth of the Highwaymen can be traced to 1954 in Fort Pierce, Fla., when a young African-American painter named Harold Newton met an established white painter named Albert "Beanie" Backus. Backus encouraged Newton to paint landscapes, and the young man eagerly obliged. Another African-American painter, Alfred Hair, began studying under Backus and for the next few years, Hair, Newton and a widening circle of associates produced Florida landscapes.

Taking their stylistic cues from Backus, the painters often worked with a heavy palette knife to create the swaying palms, shifting skies and crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Scenes of marshes, birds, boats, moss-laden trees and the St. John's River were also popular. Before long, the work of the Highwaymen began to appear on the walls of homes, offices, banks, shops and restaurants. Over the years, all of the Highwaymen developed and refined their own personal styles, ranging from surrealism to realism to impressionism. But the Florida folk art they created in the '50s is what is now generating such attention, especially among collectors.

Collecting Highwayman art has become an exciting, but often expensive, hobby. Like with many forms of collecting, the thrill is in the hunt, and with something so steeped in lore and anecdotal history as this genre, it is particularly frustrating and potentially exhilarating for collectors to pursue even the tiniest of leads. People in central Florida, along the coast from Palm Beach to Ormond Beach, dream of finding an original work at a garage sale or thrift store. But by now, most everyone in the region is aware of the values.

In spite of the scarcity, hobbyists continue to travel the highways in search of Highwaymen art. Which is ironic. The Highwaymen -- who worked so hard to ply their trade with their makeshift roadside art galleries -- can now sit back while a whole new generation of "highwaymen" (the people who are scouring the shows, sales and flea markets) pursue their hobby and enhance their collections. Ironically, the Highwaymen still living can sit back, relax and reap the rewards of their labor (monetary and otherwise).

The Highwaymen could easily have slipped into obscurity had it not been for the efforts of author and photographer Gary Monroe, who researched and wrote a book on the subject called The Highwaymen (Univ. of Florida Press, $29.95). Published in 1998, the book is credited with resurrecting the genre and sparking the intense interest now in evidence. Monroe now gives talks around the state, sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council, on what he learned from his research. He calls the art "rock 'n' roll versus opera" and "the last untold story about modern Florida."

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