I was recently in Ana Mari’s beautiful South Miami shop, The Archive, while she was having an exhibit on the Florida Highwaymen.  The walls were covered with windswept beaches, tropical sunsets, vibrant marshlands and silhouetted palms against crimson skies. It felt like the 1960s/70s and very hopeful and bright.  She started telling me about this collection of artists which consisted of 26 African Americans who were living in a ‘separate-but-equal’ world around the Ft. Pierce area in Florida.  No gallery would take any pieces from this group, she explained, they had to sell them door to door and on the side of the road, specifically A1A and US1.  These colorful landscapes adorned the walls of many businesses (even local restaurants and bars in which the artists’ skin color would not allow them to patron) and homes as they were so affordable, at @$10-$25 a piece.

The period was the mid 1950s through the 1980s and the main catalyst of the Highwaymen movement was Alfred Hair.  This African American gentleman was inspired by famed Florida landscape artist, A. E. Backus.  At the time, Backus was raking in the money selling to local galleries and collectors (he was white) and Hair aspired to have that same monetary freedom (and a new car) thinking, ‘well, I can paint those too!’.  Backus took him on as a student and Hair influenced the others, 25 men and one woman, Mary Ann Carol.  They fiercely competed with each other, producing at incredible rates, even selling paintings as the oil paint was still wet.  As they could not really afford all the proper materials an artist should have, these Highwaymen salvaged local construction sites for framing and canvas materials.  There is not an exact number of how many Highwaymen pieces have been produced but the prediction is in the range of 10-20 thousand. Many have been lost or discarded through the years as tastes and times changed.  These paintings were not regarded as ‘fine’ art as none of these artists, with the exception of Alfred Hair, were professionally trained.

Interest in the Highwaymen came back in the 2000s as this group of artists was starting to be recognized as an important piece of Florida history and culture.  All 26 Highwaymen have been inducted into the Florida Artist’s Hall of Fame alongside Earnest Hemingway, Robert Rauschenberg and other famous names.  A few of the Highwaymen are still living and painting but many have passed away.  Their kitschy works are now sought after and collected as they are entirely unique and still affordable.  One is said to even hang in the White House.  The New York Times published a story on the Highwaymen.  It looks like their wildest dreams did come true, in a way.  They may not have made the fortunes they all desired but the fame they are gaining honors their passion and perseverance.

New York Times article (click)

The Archive (click)

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