Instead of settling for traditional jobs in the agriculture industry, the Florida Highwaymen have managed to sell their artwork to customers from the backs of their cars and go door-to-door to doctor’s offices, hotels and businesses along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Making several paintings in one day allowed them to offer their work at affordable prices, around $ 25 to $ 35 each.
From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, the Highwaymen created around 200,000 works that continue to resonate today.
A new exhibition at Marie Selby Gardens in Sarasota explores the works and lives of artists during the time of segregation.
WUSF’s Cathy Carter recently spoke with exhibit curator Radiah Lovette Harper about Florida’s bandit legacy.
Radiah, here in Florida, the term Florida Highwaymen has been in the lexicon for many years now. But you’re not actually referring to this group of artists by that name.
Correct. I consider these artists to be African American landscape painters of the Fort Pierce area and hope that we will know the artworks, paintings and artists by name rather than relying on a slogan, which was a slogan that they did not create for themselves. You know, that said, they’re known as the Highwaymen. They have been on display for at least 25 years. The person who coined the phrase in 1995 was Jim Finch. I met him in 1996 to discover these artists before exhibiting them at the Tampa Museum. When I was invited by Selby as guest curator, of course I knew there had been several shows about these artists, and I didn’t want to do another show without Highwayman quotes. I didn’t want to do another show that honors their colors, their landscape, their aesthetics. I wanted to do a show that looked at the context of their lives, the history of African Americans and saw them as black people who started painting during segregation, and how that could have impacted what they painted, and how that certainly shaped who they were as human beings.
Another unique perspective you bring to the show as a black woman yourself is that when we talk about the Florida Highwaymen, we don’t often hear the story of a woman who influenced them. Can you tell us about her?
Yes, Ms. Zanobia Grace Jefferson was an artist herself. And what I found when I was researching isolated Fort Pierce, I found out that Ms. Jefferson went to Fisk University, which is a very beautiful, historically black university. Thus, she must have had a body of knowledge when she arrived at Fort Pierce to teach at Lincoln Park Academy. And then looking back I learned that it had been taught by Aaron Douglas. Any of you familiar with the Harlem Renaissance will know that Aaron Douglas was the first Harlem Renaissance mural painter. And so, she poured that information out to black men, young high school kids who was in her art class. And, you know, she deserves a lot of credit. And the blacks had a hard time. And the period we’re talking about is the KKK walking the streets. You know, we’re talking about the bombings and the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement. All of these things are happening and the students were nurtured by Ms. Jefferson, and when you read about black communities in the south during segregation, teachers went beyond classroom instruction to help students understand how succeed in this world.
Can we take a moment to talk about the art itself? Do you have any particular favorites?
Well you know I got to love all of my kids. I can’t pick one or two. But I hope listeners will have the opportunity to come to Sarasota to see this exhibit, spend time in the galleries, and watch how Mary Ann Carroll, who was the only woman in the group, how Mary Ann Carroll posed her painting, they use oil paints, which are slow drying paints, and Mary Ann Carroll used a lot of thick paint and she loved the color orange. And to some people the color scheme is a surprise with those deep orange and purple and pink skies, which to Floridians they know these skies really exist because we’ve seen them. And Alfred Hair was very interested in the trees of Fort Pierce, he was very interested in the Royal Poinciana and the palms and other trees. And its tree trunks and branches seem to be very curvilinear. And Harold Newton, a little older, considered himself a very serious painter. His features are slower, his canvases look at a subject – the ocean, and the detail is not in the addition of small pieces to the ocean, but in the color of the water and the features in the water. and the waves in the water. And so these are three different points of view, aren’t they? Each artist has their own point of view. And I would like people to get to know artists as we know Romare Bearden or as we know Vincent Van Gogh. We know how artists painted, and I think these artists deserve that kind of attention.
So what does this show tell us about the legacy of this group of artists?
The legacy for me goes back to Africa, the legacy for me goes back to the DNA of these artists who were born from ancestors who are artists. And so, these traditions of making stories work, and we can see them as storytellers, the legacy is not letting nobody stop you just because they think they have a right to it. And they wanted to be artists and they also wanted to sell. They made the choice to paint and sell works of art rather than farm labor, rather than picking fruits and vegetables for an income. But I know there are a lot of paintings there, which means someone loves them somewhere. So that way the legacy continues, the artwork is always valued, and it’s a form of legacy. Their place is very firmly anchored in American history.