Highwaymen Movie in the Making
The Highwaymen are a group of African American artists who, against all odds, became successful selling landscape paintings in Florida when Jim Crow laws prohibited most blacks from realizing their dreams. Shunned by local art galleries, the artists traveled along highways throughout Florida selling their work from the trunks of their cars or by going door-to-door in white neighborhoods and businesses.
A. E. ''Beanie" Backus, an established white regional landscape artist, mentored the first two Highwaymen artists, Harold Newton and Alfred Hair. Newton was already a painter but after seeing Backus' works he switched from painting religious scenes to painting landscapes, and Hair was one of Backus' students. Several years after taking his first lessons from Backus and anxious to get started, Hair combined what he had learned from Backus and Harold Newton and started a business creating and selling art quickly. Generous and charismatic, Hair taught other young blacks to paint with his fast painting technique.
They painted fast and furiously, sometimes together in someone's backyard or home studio, and occasionally in the natural environment. By 1970, when many of the artists were making a living painting, Hair was killed. Without his enthusiasm and energy, some of the artists discontinued painting, and as time went on, others stopped due to lack of sales.
In 1995, Jim Fitch, acquisition agent for the Florida Masters Collection and founder of the Museum of Florida Art and Culture stirred up interest in the loosely connected group by naming them the Highwaymen and telling their story. Collectors started searching the state for their art. Suddenly people were checking their attics and garages for old dusty landscape paintings as renewed interest in the Highwaymen gained a new momentum that is continuing.
Most of the Highwaymen lived in Fort Pierce or other nearby small towns during the 1950's. Strictly enforced state laws segregated whites and blacks. Although the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs Board of Education declared that states could no longer segregate their schools, and boycotts and protests had raised the public consciousness, it would be another ten years before the Civil Rights Act.
For the most part, blacks had little opportunity for advancement and lived substandard to the white community. So when Alfred Hair graduated from high school in 1957, he had the choice of hoping to get day work in the citrus groves or tomato fields or, maybe if he was lucky, finding a steady job performing menial tasks at a local packinghouse. Hair rejected the predictable path, and in his desire to be a millionaire by age 35, chose painting as a means to escape poverty.
Hair and his associates flourished during the 1960's when racial tensions across the country often resulted in violence. Although small in comparison to larger cities such as Los Angeles, Fort Pierce experienced riots and burnings in Blacktown. Yet the Highwaymen still managed to travel into white neighborhoods without incident. The group may have been making more money and raising their personal standard of living, but they were still living in Blacktown because there was nowhere else they could live in Fort Pierce.
The Highwaymen created an unprecedented 150,000 to 200,000 paintings in about a forty-year period. They charged $25 to $35 for each framed piece, making it possible for Floridians and tourists, who normally didn't buy original art, to own their own affordable oil paintings. Today, many collectors purchase because of the connection they feel to Florida's beaches, hammocks, big skies, and winding rivers that these paintings represent. Living at a time when much of Florida's natural landscape is giving way to development has made the Highwaymen paintings more important for many people.
The Highwaymen's history has become as important as the groups' art because their story relates the universal qualities needed for success. Certainly, Alfred Hair demonstrated entrepreneurship and leadership, but other artists showed a willingness to learn, an ability to share their knowledge, and then break out of the mold segregation had imposed upon them. Their ability to achieve as artists resulted in the group's induction into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.