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Work Of Florida's 'Highwaymen' Gets A New Life

Florida’s natural world, like its social world, is of many minds: serene, clear, or bright one minute, then dark, indignant, or utterly furious the next. And sometimes it’s a quixotic mix. 

The Highwaymen are a group of African American artists known for depictions of Florida’s swamps, beaches, and forests. By painting and selling their work, they broke the codes of the Jim Crow era that festered during the 1950s, 60s, and beyond. The new artist-run gallery Guccivuitton is showing original pieces by the Highwaymen (and the lone Highwaywoman), along with other local artists who’ve picked Florida as their subject, but who choose to take landscape painting in a new direction. 

With roots in Ft. Pierce, the Highwaymen started to form in 1954 after Harold Newton, a 19-year-old black youth, was convinced by Albert Backus to paint landscapes rather than religious scenes. Newton then taught himself and began selling the work out of his car. Backus, who was an older white man, then gave lessons to Alfred Hair a year after that, who was merely 14 at the time. Newton and Hair formed the core of what would become the Highwaymen.  

Since gallery representation and formal schooling was not an option for many African American artists at the time, Newton and Hair and the 24 black painters that gradually came into their orbit sold door-to-door, traveling up and down Florida’s highways. Tourists, motels, offices, and homeowners were their customer base – and the work sold very well. 

Scenes of melting sunsets, crashing waves, and fiery poincianas were bought and put up in commercial and private spaces, coming to define the popular images of our state. As Domingo Castillo, a director at Guccivuitton said, “they created a visual language” that still resonates in Florida’s mythos and representation. 

The Highwaymen painted en plein air – standing and looking directly at the scene – and did it quickly, using cheap materials like upson board instead of canvas. Though individual styles shine through, much of the group’s work might seem of the “Sunday-painter” type, where art is more a hobby. 

True, while there were no grand aesthetic statements or manifestos, there was something bigger: they escaped their expected roles and pushed the limits on the types of labor that minorities were expected to do. Made clear in this special interactive, the story of the Highwaymen was also fraught with tragedy and intrigue, including the barroom murder of founder Alfred Hair at the age of 29.  

Inside the Guccivuitton gallery

The show at Guccivuitton – which is run by three young artists named Loriel Beltran, Aramis Gutierrez, and Domingo Castillo – contains work from the Highwaymen that go back to the 1960s, but also some that date to 2013, since many of the original members continue to paint. “Florida Landscape Paintings” includes a dismal swamp silhouette by James Gibson, a vivid peach twilight over a river by Rodney Demps, and an explosive seashore scene by Mary Ann Carroll, amongst other sublime natural portraits. 

But when you first walk into the Little Haiti-based gallery, you’re met front and center by a painting that looks barely there. It’s composed of ghostly, abstractedly slender pines by Scott Armetta, who today still paints en plain air and who usually only presents his work at nature centers.  

Daniel Newman also diverges from the expected with big black swathes over bold, dripping colors, which manage still to convey Floridian fauna and climate. There’s also a multimedia work by Philip Estlund that’s equal parts painting and sculpture. These artists, while using avant-garde techniques, have gone against the grain by rendering the natural world instead of the art world.

They illustrate an experimental take on the landscape genre, and seem to deal with the highly contemporary issues of erasure, climate change, and crises of identity. Yet they fit well with the humble works of the Highwaymen – works that were born out of a different kind of struggle.  

“While the Highwaymen painted to escape the labors prescribed to them, these other artists have chosen to paint landscapes as a way of escaping the machine of contemporary art,” explained Domingo Castillo. Even though they differ, both groups capture Florida’s stunning and often moody vistas, in a way that only painting can. 

“Florida Landscape Paintings” on view at Guccivuitton until July 27
8375 NE 2nd Avenue
Saturdays, from 12-5PM, or by appointment