Friday, February 18, 2011

The Florida Legacy of the Highwaymen Artists

Art by Mary Ann Carroll

Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward toward  eternity.                                                                                                                    Daniel Barenboim
Go to for a complete list of 25 African-American men and one woman, that became popularly known as The Highwaymen.

 by Victoria Mares-Hershey

While in Florida at an arts and crafts show, I became aware of the Indian River school of painting. African-American artists, living smack in the middle of a time of racial violence against black people in the south, cut their road with art to become founders of Florida’s contemporary art tradition. On either side of 1950, 25 African American men and one woman, on the west coast of Florida started painting color-saturated, dramatic, often surreal natural landscapes of the Indian River Valley around them. Much later, they were described as “the Highwaymen,” a name that falls far short of their identity as artists. Originators of the “ Indian River school of painting” comes closer to the roots of their work.They lived in and around the Gifford, Florida and the Ft. Pierce area, where they turned their backyards, homes and garage spaces into studios. Most of the artists were in their 20’s when they started painting to sell, some had painted in their teens and one, at the age of 10, had sold a painting to his teacher for $25.   


Art by Roy McLendon Sr.

 To put the time period in which they started into context, it was 1947 when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers thereby breaking the color barrier in major leagues baseball in America. The following year the armed forces were desegregated by President Truman; and the NAACP legal campaign with attorney Thurgood Marshall won victories in the Supreme Court for voting rights, education and interstate transportation desegregation. Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet, who were ground-breaking, Jim Crow shaking, civil rights leaders in Florida were killed in 1951 when the Ku-Klux-Klan placed a bomb under their bed on Christmas Day. Harry had fought for equal pay for all teachers, investigated southern lynchings, conducted extraordinarily effective voter registration drives, started the Florida chapter of the NAACP and advocated for Floridians facing unequal justice. It was 1955 when fourteen year old Emmet Till was beaten and shot to death in Mississippi by white attackers. In the same year Martin Luther King Jr. made headlines with the Montgomery bus boycott. A thousand troops were dispatched to quell the violence directed at students desegregating the schools in Little Rock in 1957.

Art by Alfred Hair
At the time galleries, art shows and exhibitions were closed to black artists in Florida and the rest of the south. In spite of the brutal realities of race violence, these black artists with audacity and finesse packed their paintings into the back of their vehicles and sold them along the open highway, also knocking on doors of white businesses and private homes. They began painting on what they could afford, the Upson board or Masonite used in construction and framed them in crown molding. Their work documented a Florida that was fast disappearing to concrete and development: atmosphere created by blazing colors, trees heavy with red or purple flora, the greens, blues and neutrals of marshes and sea shore, dazzling white birds, magnificent skies, the moods of moonlight on unoccupied waterfront and riverbends. Except for two artists, most were self-taught, learning by observation and over time, sharing their best skills and techniques with each other. They painted because they could, loved the natural Florida environment in which they lived and needed the money from the sales to support themselves and their families . The $5 dollars to $25 a painting, whatever its size helped many of them to stay out of the citrus groves, meat packing plants and hard labor that paid $5 or $6 a day when they could find it. Whether it was for the love of art, the natural environment, the money (a necessity of life), the liberating life of an artist, or a combination of these, “the Highwaymen” and highway woman were cutting a path in the wilderness for opportunity and dignity for themselves and their progeny. Between 1950 and the 1980’s, it has been estimated that these 26 artists produced some 200,000 pieces of work. As artists, they were largely unknown and unrecognized, even by the purchasers of their work until the 60’s when white writer Jim Fitch first saw the art in 1964 and wrote about it in the arts magazine, Antiques and Arts Around Florida. He wrote,

“ I've identified nearly twenty of these artists still living. They are, for the most part, unknown and have not received credit for their contribution to Florida's art tradition. In fact, it was these artists who were the bare bones beginning for Florida's resident/regional art tradition. Further, their paintings met a growing demand for regional Florida art and served to encourage what has become the Indian River school of painting, perhaps the only school or movement within the state that is recognizable as such.”

Fitch, described the painters he met as “The Highwaymen,” for the way they sold their paintings. “ The Highwaymen” name stuck, better than ‘the Indian River school of painting.”

Even in 2010 and 2011, exhibits of their paintings by many of the artists still living and working, are described as work of “The Highwaymen.” Now their paintings, both vintage and contemporary command hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars and are highly collectible. Their artwork is recognized as the beginning of Florida’s contemporary art tradition. South Florida Community College Museum of Florida Art and Culture hosts a “Highwaymen” collection. On its website, SFCC states about these artists,

“ Their artwork is recognized as the beginning of Florida’s contemporary art tradition…” “The Highwaymen are unique in all of art history because:• a single artist and one community can be identified as being responsible for their beginning and growth, and • all the participants have been identified and most are still painting."

In 1994, the 26 original artists popularly known as “The Highwaymen” were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Paintings by some of these artists have been exhibited in The White House, Washington, D.C. and in the Florida Governor’s Mansion.Their legacy is huge, including that given to their own family. In doing research for her thesis, "Painting Across Generations,” graduate student Elissa Rudolph discovered that these founders of the Indian River school of painting encouraged their children and family members to paint, and become artists.

From February 2011 through August 2011, The Florida House in Washington, D.C. has an exhibit of the work of the artists, more popularly known as "the Highwaymen."

Learn more about "The Highwaymen," their history, and current exhibits of their work as well as appearances by the artists by searching The Highwaymen LLC, and for the artists own website. There are books on the artists, and by the artists on

Next Blog: On the road, meeting Roy McLendon Jr., artist and son of “Highwayman” Roy McLendon Sr. 

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