New Exhibit To Feature Art By Florida's African American 'Highwaymen' Painters

Jan 3, 2019

Known for their colorful scenes of palm trees blowing in the Florida breeze and the beautiful landscapes of rural Florida, the Florida Highwaymen are a group of 26 self-taught African American landscape painters who played an essential role in depicting the state's landscape in the mid-20th century. 

The group -- 25 men and one woman -- originated from the Fort Pierce area. Throughout their existence, they transcended racial boundaries, even selling artwork to many white customers during the Jim Crow era. Now, several of the group’s pieces will be on display at the Levis JCC Phyllis & Harvey Sandler Center in Boca Raton from Jan. 8 to Jan. 30.

Gary Monroe, the author of the book "The Highwaymen: Florida’s African American Landscape Painters,” joined Sundial to talk about the group’s unique painting style and their history. Monroe will give a special talk about the Florida Highwaymen at the opening of the exhibit on Jan. 6.

WLRN: Take us back to the origins of The Highwaymen. How did this group get their start?

MONROE: Spontaneous combustion. In the late 1950s, one of the painters, Alfred Hair, who was a dreamer (this is the height of Jim Crow Florida) decided he wanted to be a millionaire by his 35th birthday and do it through his artwork. He invited others to join him and by and large they just taught themselves to paint ... so they're sort of self-taught in the community. They made their oil paintings and took them on the road and had the audacity of hope in the 1960s to knock on strangers' doors, lawyers, doctors, accountants, the phone companies and the paintings just sold quickly. People love their imagery and there were sort of like trophies identifying why people make Florida home. They had a 20-year run in during which time they have sold by some estimates a quarter million oil paintings.

What was the landscape that they were capturing at the time?

They were painting their environment. They were painting the South Florida coastal scenes, the backwater scenes... under beautiful light and with a very optimistic aura. It was post-war Florida, people were flocking here, it was a very optimistic time, and I think these paintings of natural Florida really appeal to our visceral selves. It was no wonder they sold like hotcakes at $25 a painting. And at the same time other professional painters were charging approximately $250 for their paintings, so at one-tenth the price there were very affordable to the masses.

Let's talk about ... Alfred Hair. Why was he revered as one of the most talented of the painters?

He was perhaps the most original. Alfred Hair was a dreamer, a complete optimist and charismatic. When I interviewed his fellow painters for the first book, guys in their 60s and 70s, they were getting teary eyed just remembering him. Alfred didn't want to be known as an artist. In fact, he went about corrupting all those cherished and romanticized landscape paintings. He just like wanted to make money.

So what Alfred did by charging one-tenth of what a painting would otherwise go for -- he had to paint really fast to make up for the shortfall of cash. So he would charge $25 per painting but he would make 10 paintings the same time it would take a professional artist to make one.