On Hurricane Irma, and art of the Florida Highwaymen

Sunday, September 10th, 2017. Filed under: Art Florida Legendary Landscapes

Harold Newton. Wind-blown Palm and Surf, c. 1960. oil on masonite, 24 x 18″

Glued to CNN this weekend, following the progress of Hurricane Irma through the Caribbean and Florida, I was startled to realize that images on the news were mirrored by certain images in the book I’m reading: The Journey of the Highwaymen, by Catherine M. Enns. The Florida Highwaymen were a legendary group of  mid-century African-American artists who painted Florida’s nature in all its beauty and fury, including hurricanes.  When a CNN affiliate reported this morning live from Fort Pierce, Florida–the coastal town central to the Highwaymen’s story–the eerie coincidence prompted this post.

Harold Newton. Hurricane, c. 1965. Oil on Upson board. 28 x 48″

The Journey of the Highwaymen is a beautiful coffee table book I bought a few years ago for about $40, after a trip to Florida.   It’s a testament to the popularity of the Highwaymen that this book now sells on Amazon.ca for between $200 (used) and $776.  I highly recommend it, if you can find it, as it has 200 gorgeous colour plates.  I dug it out again after spotting the recent obituary of James Gibson, one of the 26 original Highwaymen.  Their story is an inspiring one of artistic entrepreneurship and hope.

Alfred Hair. Hurricane, c. 1962. Oil on Upson board, 24 x 36″

For most African-Americans, life in Fort Pierce, Florida (and the rest of the segregated south), then meant backbreaking agricultural labour in fields and canneries, and the despair of rockbottom wages.  Also living in Fort Pierce was Florida’s preeminent landscape painter A.E. “Beans” Backus (1906-1990).  Backus was white, a widower, drinker, vegetarian, and friendly soul whose studio was open to everyone.  It’s said he mentored hundreds.  When a local teacher recognized the talent of a young black student named Alfred Hair, he referred him to Backus. Backus mentored Hair, teaching him archetypal landscapes or “templates” that could be quickly reproduced. 

Alfred Hair (1941-1970) was the first Highwayman, though they wouldn’t be called that for decades.  Hair was an entrepreneur extraordinaire, whipping off his vivid paintings and selling them out of the trunk of his car, often while they were still wet.  Hair helped others who wanted in on the new lucrative painting gig.  The Highwaymen were basically self taught, and learned from experience how to paint fast and which scenes sold best.  Though I’ve been captivated by the hurricane paintings and chosen to feature them here, what mostly sold to tourists were idyllic tropical Edens, serene backwoods scenes of Old Florida, and technicolour sunsets.

Nailing cheap couch-sized boards to backyard palm tree ‘easels’, applying bold sweeps of colour in loose composition, framing them up with construction molding, the Highwaymen sold their paintings out of their cars to tourists driving along U.S. Highway 1 (which ran from Miami to Fort Pierce). The group’s story is one of invention and enterprise.  The artists’ individual stories are equally compelling. The group’s one woman artist–Mary Ann Carroll–had seven children, several jobs, painted with exquisite colour sense, and became a musician, too.  Tragically, Alfred Hair was shot dead in a bar room at age 29, by a man jealous of the painter’s bankroll and way with the ladies.

R.A. “Roy” McLendon. Wash Day Wash Out, c. 1962. Oil on Upson board, 24 x 36″

Once derided as “motel art” for the masses, the Highwaymen’s work has earned its place in art history for redefining the landscape genre with bold colour, expressive brushwork, and minimal detail.  Critics have even compared their work to that of Andy Warhol (repetition, commerciality) and Jackson Pollock (speed, gesture).  I personally love the paintings for the way they convey Florida’s many atmospheric moods, both stormy and sunny.  Though motivated primarily by the need to earn, these modest painters created a pleasing and genuinely original American art form.

Mary Ann Carroll. Beach Day in Blues and Greens, c. 1965. Oil on Upson board. 24 x 36″.  Mary Ann Carroll is the only female member of the original Highwaymen.

Today, paintings by the Florida Highwaymen are highly sought after by collectors, and there are still many out there to find.  It’s estimated the group produced between 100,000 and 200,000 paintings, thousands of works travelling north in the cars of vacationing families, stashed in rec rooms and attics, waiting to be discovered and celebrated.  Keep an eye open at Grandma’s, or check out EBay but beware of online auctions offering ‘Highwaymen style’ or outright fakes.    

Alfred Hair. Boathouse, c. 1964. Oil on Upson board, 24 x 48″

It was serendipity that led me to revisit the Highwaymen this weekend. Their inspiring tale of hope, hustle, dignity and dreams is an antidote for dark times.  As expressed on the back cover of The Journey of the Highwaymen, they produced “…an historic and hugely successful art enterprise symbolizing the perseverance of the American spirit.”

Book cover: The Journey of the Highwaymen, by Catherine M. Enns (2009)

To learn more about the 26 original Highwaymen (some are still alive and appear at events in Florida), check out the Highwaymen website

For readers who’d like to help those in the path of hurricane Irma and other weather crises, donations can be made to Red Cross Canada, or google International Red Cross.  Hurricane season lasts until November and they’ve already reached the letter “M”.  Take care, everyone, and take care of each other. 


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